Let's face it Neopagans, we are a minority. There are still some who live in fear of repercussions if it were ever to get out what their religious calling may be. Assuming we are discussing those who are serious in regards to the various Neopagan traditions and not the fly by nights that come and go, we dwindle in numbers in comparison to the Abrahamic, Buddhist, and Hindu religions. Then when we get into the individual traditions within Neopaganism, we could be talking about only a few thousand in a world of billions, that actually believe and practice as we do. Finding a local group to practice with, especially with some of the more obscure traditions, can be near impossible at times. It is the simple fact and so, I write this for all those Neopagans who have never been able to experience a face to face community of like minds, but find their understanding from the depths of the internet realm.
Prior to the ability to globally communicate in seconds, some local areas had Neopagan communities that fostered a decent number of people from time to time. This all depended on if you knew where to look to find them. Usually the specialty new age store was a good place to find local newspapers that had listings of ways to get in touch with others of like religious tendencies. There might even be the occasional cork-board where others could put out word of the groups they were looking to start.
In the early days of the internet, a person had to already know what the web address was to get in contact with others of that tradition (or so one of the "Elders" of my tradition told me), limiting the number of people who would see such postings. Eventually social networking sites broadened the horizons of many people who may have never realized that there were others of like mind to communicate with. In the early days of email groups and chat rooms, Neopagans began finding their teachers and mentors or just those groups where what they believed finally "made sense." Sites like livejournal, then Myspace, and now Facebook gave people the opportunity to find their internet cork-board to ask their questions, find their groups and discuss their beliefs. Those who didn't even know there was a larger community, now had 24/7 access to information to help them on their way.
We look at this progression and we see a shift in understanding. We have many "Elders" who have taken advantage of the wide array of communications networks available that weren't available 20 years ago. We have young adults that now have very easy access to not only information, but people to discuss that information with. And, unfortunately, we have those who dwell on the idea of "well in my day, we didn't have all this new fangled technology, so if you don't do it the way I did, then you're doing it wrong."
While those latter particular folks may embrace the internet social networks from time to time, they only see it as a way to kill some time. When they were starting out, either you found a local community or you suffered alone. Maybe you were lucky enough to find some self addressed stamped envelope correspondence course, but those were few and far between. You sat in solitude with your books and you did it all by yourself. The earlier mentioned folks didn't get the luxury of an easy to reach group of people until this technology became available, so they can't seem to fathom the idea of anyone on the internet considering themselves part of a community.
If we go back to what community originally meant, we find the word "common" at the source. Farthest back tracing we see, "from Pre-Indo-European *ko-moin-i- "held in common," compound adjective formed from *ko- "together" + *moi-n-, suffixed form of root *mei- "change, exchange."* Depending on the definition, you'll see a mix of "those who share a common place" to "those who share a common idea." When looking at these definitions, is an internet community actually a community?
If we can consider the intangible, in between space of everywhere and nowhere, known as the internet a place, then yes, those who come online to discuss various topics, do indeed share a common place. In the sense of this discussion, do those who get together to discuss Neopaganism, or even religion in general, share a common idea? Absolutely. That's the point of those people seeking each other out, to discuss the common ideas and beliefs that bring them together in the first place.
So how does one go about sharing a religion when we never look each other in the eyes? True, a picture is worth a thousand words, but I can still paint a pretty decent picture with words, in less than half of that. Otherwise, what is the point of books? Think of the internet as an interactive book, except your questions are answered immediately. How do I create an altar? What are the stories of the Gods? What types of rituals should I try? And, getting into more mystical discussions, "I had a vision of a deity today and this is what I learned from it. Does that make sense to anyone else?"
With greater connecting technologies coming that will allow real time face to face discussions over the shared computer screen, the possibilities seem to be growing on how one can connect to a community through the net, which they are possibly lacking in the immediate area. The possibility of having interactive rituals in real time that could bring about a communal experience for people in different countries, in different time zones, at the exact same time, is becoming a real possibility. Imagine if that ritual experience moved on from words, to an actual shared experience. How amazing is that possibility?
Is such a thing a replacement for a living breathing community that, in that moment shares the exact same piece of land, fire and food? No. And no one is saying it should be, but the bigger picture is that we are a minority, many times reaching out for a community. No one in today's society, with today's technology, should be left out because of the limitations of the past nor denied a place in modern Neopagan traditions because of their location on the planet.
Should the goal be a working local community? In my opinion, yes. Should the lack thereof be a barrier because one doesn't have such a thing? If one isn't working in a mystery tradition, then absolutely not. It's time for people to embrace the possibilities and accept that not everyone will be able to foster a face to face relationship with those of the same tradition. Even when other Neopagans find each other, there can be a vast array of traditions mixed together. It is time to put the "this is the way I had to do it" mindset behind, respect the technology, and be appreciative of "community" where ever it can be found.
*Online Etymology Dictionary
Two other worth while blogs on the subject:
Community on Sinnsreachd Life
CRP The Next Generation...Or Not