Painting the purple bubble gray: The New York Times and measuring community

A former resident of the Disney company’s erstwhile new urban utopia in Celebration, Fla., spoke to students last week of the disintegration of that community. That change came when Disney allowed the townspeople increasing freedom in civic life.

Celebration’s failure is not unique. Authority figures that try to form and strengthen communities historically risk imposing their own will in order to succeed in their goal. This rule especially applies to governments, college councils included.

New College Council (CC) presidents Todd Rogers ’01 and Ami Parekh ’01 are no fascists, which seriously complicates their goal of strengthening a campus community.

The first effort to achieve a community, getting students to read The New York Times – seems to fall right into the same trap.

The nation’s premier paper will no longer arrive in common areas around campus on Sundays. For the last four weeks of school, it will arrive 500 times each on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

The group responsible for the program, the newly formed “Purple Bubble,” has agreed with a distributor to deliver copies of the weekday paper to houses on campus at a rate of one paper per four students. The group hopes to get students reading and discussing the news. The distributor hopes to make future subscribers out of Williams students.

To be fair, Purple Bubble wants more out of the Times than just a community.

Jonathan Pahl ’03, who took over the group after Spring Break, said, “I got involved because I would like to see more interaction among Williams students about issues that extend beyond Williams College.” Pahl would like to see formal and informal discussions on the news increase, to the extent that Purple Bubble even wants to bring general interest speakers to campus.

My favorite measure of a community’s health counts only the numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians. These numbers reflect that people are not only venturing out in public, but venturing out without enclosing themselves in a private automobile.

A campus bicycle program – such as the one in the works here – speeds interactions between students, helping them strengthen their communities. Dining Services’ policy of requiring students to sign up for at least five meals a week has a similar goal.

As a journalist, I appreciate newspapers as a way of increasing interaction in addition to keeping people informed. In that sense, Purple Bubble’s use of the Times as a vehicle for student interaction makes sense.

Communities rely on their participants having something common – interactions have to be “about” something. Rogers wants everybody to be talking about the same thing, and students familiar with the phrase can guess what Purple Bubble would suggest.

The problem with basing a Williams community on “issues that extend beyond Williams College” is that the resultant community does not have a Williams flavor. The metaphorical purple bubble remains the essential Williams community; only it will no longer be purple. Rather, it becomes the color of the outside events. In the case of Rudy Giuliani’s plasticized New York, our precious bubble will turn a uniform gray.

Pahl knows this and appreciates that individual students have their own sense of community. “I’d hate it if everybody grew up reading the same stuff,” he said. “I want people to read what they want to read.”

Except perhaps the logistics of recycling the deluge of papers (see box at right), this is Pahl’s greatest challenge. Having given up on people going to the library, Purple Bubble wants to distribute a variety of publications to campus next fall.

Free speech advocates and newspapermen measure communities based on the numbers of newspapers they have. As a self-deluded newspaperman myself, I hope we can stack up well against this measure next year. The next four weeks is a trial period. Let us not settle for the same thing in the fall.

However you measure community, a Williams community ultimately starts with the one thing all Williams students have in common – they are all Williams students. Very few of us believe that is enough.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *