What We Can Learn from the Amish about Online Communities

by Ken Mueller on December 7, 2011 · 16 comments

My Amish RootsThis guest post is from my friend Shawn Smucker, who previously wrote for me back in July with The Internet is Destroying Me. Shawn lives in Paradise, Pennsylvania with his wife, four children, four chickens, and a rabbit named Rosie. His most recent book, My Amish Roots, explores the roles of family, death, life, tradition, and legacy against the backdrop of his Amish ancestry. He blogs daily at shawnsmucker.com about writing, the strange things his children say, and postmodern Christianity. Here in the Lancaster area, the Amish are known for their strong sense of community, so I asked Shawn to write about that and what we can learn about to live in online communities. Also, Shawn has graciously provided me with two signed copies of his new book that I’ll be using as part of a holiday giveaway later this week. Stay tuned!

When my great-great-grandmother’s first husband (Samuel Lapp) died in his mid-20s from a failed appendectomy performed on his kitchen table, his best friend was so ill he couldn’t attend the funeral. So on the day of the funeral, they drove the horse and wagon containing the coffin to the sick friend’s house, parked the wagon outside his window, and leaned the coffin over so that he could pay his last respects.

When my great-great-grandfather Amos King’s first wife died, and he couldn’t simultaneously take care of the children and work his farm, a cousin took in his youngest child until Amos remarried three years later.

When a distant Amish cousin of mine was rendered unresponsive after being hit by a car, the community supported the family and held a sale. They raised over $200,000, and his medical expenses were covered.

* * * * *

We talk a lot about community and social media. You can’t throw a dead cat without hitting another blog post questioning the merits of the cyber-community. Is it real community if you never meet someone “in real life”? Everyone hates Facebook. Everyone loves Facebook. Everyone hates Twitter. Everyone loves Twitter. No one knows what to do with Google+.

As I wrote this book about my Amish roots, I was impacted over and over by the strength of their community. Their bonds were tested by circumstances I can only imagine: Atlantic crossings that took weeks; a 20% mortality rate among children; war and the rumor of war constantly surrounding them.

I started to wonder: what makes a strong community?

* * * * *

Last week a blogger that I follow, Knox McCoy, ran a simple blog post about a family he had heard of. Not a family he knew, just a couple and a child that had somehow come on to his radar. Their child had received a difficult diagnosis. They needed some money to cover medical costs.

So he held a small contest – donate $5 for a chance to win a pair of TOMS. For every $5 you donate, you get an entry. After one week, he had raised over $5,000.

This is community: a sense of commonality, an environment of compassion, and a desire to help and allow others to help you.

* * * * *

I’m realizing that those who complain about the lack of community on Facebook, Twitter and the like have a point. If social media devolves into simply a replacement for the 30-second television or radio ads we no longer watch and listen to, then it is not a community worth fostering. Community is never a one-way street.

But then I see folks like Knox, getting to know people, helping people, connecting people, and I think, “That’s what community is all about.”

It’s actually the same type of community my ancestors had, long before television or radio or Kickstarter. The only difference is that people are united by interest and not geography.

Which is stronger? I don’t know. What do you think?






Well, it is in an interesting question. I think they both can be very strong. For example, I found my roommate crying today. I asked him what was wrong. And he told me that a friend whom he had never met in person, but was an internet friend had died. At first I was incredulous because he had never met the person. Yet, the more I thought about it, it is possible to have meaningful relationship via the web. I do not think it should be a replacement for face to face contact, but they can be meaningful relationships. And, for that matter, I have never met you Shawn, yet I was excited to have the opportunity to post about your book on my blog. And I would like to meet you in person some day, even though you are a Sixers fan.


I think the two types of community you describe contain the same elements. But at their core, they're still the same. They're about relationships... and in our day and age, I think technology can be extremely powerful in developing those relationships.

What I mean is: in your first set of examples from your family, sure they were united by geography, but they also knew each other as people. They were interested in each other, they shared many commonalities even among their differences, and because they knew each other, they were there to support each other when that was a need. They had a relationship with each other.

In your blogger example, my guess is it's the same thing, basically. I don't know the blogger/situation you mention, but he has clearly built up relationships, albeit online, to the point where people care about what he's doing, what he's interested in, what he's trying to do. So when he needed help, they helped him. They had a relationship with each other.

I am very connected - or so I believe, and I would like to think @KenMueller will back me up - to the online community I participate in. Funnily enough, I'm nowhere near as connected to my physical neighborhood, because I don't get to talk/learn about too many of my neighbors... just seems to be the way it is. Sure, there are a few neighbors I know better than others... but they're not friends. What is ironic is that ever since I started subscribing to a neighborhood listserv, I am learning more about my geographical neighbors than I would otherwise ever do. So now I feel as if I'm getting to know more of them.

I didn't mean to write a blog post as a comment, but you got me thinking!

Latest blog post: My Wake Up Call


I love the idea of "community". I think that it is inside of us and we can choose whether or not we personally want to use it. Through social media we have the ability to find like minded people who want to be a part of our community. You can kind of build it yourself, not reliant upon relations or neighborhoods. Like any community, you will have some that are more involved than others and some who choose to sit on the sidelines and watch.


Ha! Not sure if I can be as generous, now that I know you are a Lakers fan. But I suppose we could give meeting a shot. @TimThurman


Great thoughts, Shonali. In light of what you are saying, I sometimes wonder if the social media/online community has grown so quickly because it's actually filling a vacuum of need that we have as human beings. For many reasons, we no longer connect as much with those in close proximity to us, and social media allows us to make those connections in different ways. Thanks for sharing. @Shonali @KenMueller

KenMueller moderator

@BestRoofer very well said, Joe. A perfect summation of the concept of community and our role in it!


@shawnsmucker I think that's part of it (filling a vacuum) but I personally don't participate online because of that; in fact, if that were the case, I'd be very uncomfortable & be going to therapy, LOL. First I have to learn about it because it's an area in which I work, and second, I just find it fascinating (I guess that should be "first," but I'm already typing...) how you can meet so many different people from all over the world and get to know them. But then, I also met my husband of almost 13 years online - back when there was no Facebook, Twitter, etc... so is there something in my DNA, and those of people like Ken, you, etc., that makes us do this? I don't know. But it's fascinating. @KenMueller

Latest blog post: My Wake Up Call


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  6. […] All in all, it’s a great endeavor. But what makes this more special is that while they are on the road, Shawn will be blogging regularly, telling stories in his own unique way. You see, more than anything else, Shawn is a story teller. He has an incredible gift for relating real life in a very real and creative way. The Internet and social media will allow them to stay connected to both folks back home here in Lancaster County, as well as friends all over the country. The days of being disconnected on the road are gone. And Shawn has agreed to write a guest post for me about this while they are traveling across the country. (Shawn has previously written two posts for me here: The Internet is Destroying Me and What We Can Learn from the Amish about Online Communities.) […]

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