SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Humans are social animals. That is not new information. Even the ancients knew: it is not good for man to be alone.

"If you study ancient and classical history, you see many examples of where banishment from society was the worst possible punishment," said David Burton, county engagement and community development specialist with University of Missouri Extension. "That is because humans are made to live in community."

The problem is that virtual communities cannot replace real, face-to-face communities. 

"Virtual communities cannot provide meaning and fellowship in the same way. They certainly cannot serve as intermediate structures between the individual and an all-powerful government," said Burton. "A virtual community is no substitute for the real thing."

In his 1953 book, “The Quest for Community,” Robert Nisbet argued that radical individualism caused communities to break down. This desire for individual autonomy has weakened family, church, clubs, groups and associations. 

As face-to-face communities have declined, people have flocked to virtual, online communities. Many see these as communities for a new generation.

"In a face-to-face community, I come as I am. In virtual communities, I come as the image I want to project. That is not a community. Instead, we end up with narcissistic groups of false selves," said Burton.

In this social media world, Burton notes that we may have more “friends” than we could have in the face-to-face community. But, the quality of those friendships is so poor that sociologists have coined the phrase “migratory friendships.” This word describes digital friends who have lots of information about each other but do not know each other.

"Our founders in America created a country that respected individual rights and liberties, but always in the context of the people. People united in communities and associations, which secured individual rights from an otherwise all-powerful government," said Burton. "As a result, we had balance."

When he visited America, Tocqueville praised the civic virtue of Americans that resulted in building hospitals, schools, churches, and other community institutions.

However, in recent times, "individual autonomy” has exceeded the idea of community in America. Not surprisingly, as radical individualism has grown, the power of government has grown too.

Burton says we need a new generation of community leaders and community networks for connecting with other humans, especially in rural communities.

"How can you connect with people and enjoy community? Certainly, churches are great at doing this. But let me add some other suggestions that are easy for you to join: Chambers of Commerce, park systems that need volunteers, parent organizations that support your school district, your county library system, garden clubs, senior centers and even an MU Extension leadership program," said Burton.

For more information, contact any of these MU Extension community development specialists working in southwest Missouri:  Pam Duitsman in Christian County, (417) 581-3558; David Burton in Greene County, (417) 881-8909 or Maria E. Rodriguez-Alcalá in Jasper County at (417) 358-2158.

MU Extension programs focus on the high-priority needs of Missourians to improve lives, communities and economies by providing relevant, responsive and reliable educational solutions. Each county extension center, with oversight by locally elected and appointed citizens, is your local link to practical education on almost anything. More information on this topic is available online at

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