I've been thinking a lot about this recently. Lately in terms of the impacts of the gatekeepers. A while back on the FutureCommons list we had a conversation about how ISPs were starting to control what we could and could not do on the web.
This is worrisome from a community standpoint in that if we don't provide payment to the masters of connectivity, our on-line communities will suffer slow load times or outright blockage. So the very infrastructure of this community building is in danger.
But overall, I think as a society we are filled with a variety of pop-Soma that rewards not being engaged. But it's tricky. Communities pop up where you least expect them. Whether they're over a cancelled TV show like Firefly or something like Britney Spears or World of Warcraft.
Communities can exist in the most unlikely of places.
So another question might be, what is the relationship between being observant & engaged and being part of a community? Does being a community member somewhere get you off the hook?
Recently Ed Vielmetti and I had posts that related to the value of lurkers in a community. These can include neighbors who keep their yard nice, but never show up to community meetings. If all neighbors showed up to a community meeting, you'd have overload - at least in the short term.
So there also may be a scale of engagement from hostile to supporting with lurking being somewhere in the 60% range and indifferent being the absolute middle.
Here I will shoot violently off on a tangent. When I was 0 through 10 I lived in Omaha, Nebraska. The Omaha school system was very progressive and my first years of grade school were really fun. We had a variety of interesting programs that had us kids visiting workplaces, working on the school itself, and taking ownership of our studies.
When I was 10 we moved to Grand Island, Nebraska, where we were taught to play dodgeball. (In a sense). The GI school system was much more traditional, we rarely left the building, teachers were less tolerant of individual study, and we never had a sense of ownership beyond the names on our papers.
Even as a kid, I noticed this. My descriptions of school changed from "Fun" and "Neat" to "Mean" and "Boring." Which fostered more of a sense of engagement?
Years later this was also evidenced to me by moving from my large Psychology program at the University of Nebraska (ugh) to my very exciting Urban Planning program at Michigan State (yay!). Smaller class sizes, a sense of camaraderie with my entire and definable class, direct interaction with professors, classes that were conversations ... all fostered a sense of community at MSU that was totally lacking at the previous diploma mill. (I'm certain that a business degree at MSU is a diploma mill, btw).
The point is, I think we're starting the process of alienation very quickly in life. People rebel against alienation naturally, which is Danah Boyd's main point about MySpace.
So I'd say my main recommendation is .. start 'em young and see where they go!
PS. In Grand Island in the 4th grade we were supposed to read a book over Christmas break and write a book report. I read Richard Adams' Watership Down. I got an F and my parents were called to the school. Why? Because my father had evidently written the paper for me since it was (a) written too well and (b) no fourth grader could read all of Watership Down.
My mother's head just about exploded.
The solution was to have my teacher read the book and then we had a (gasp) conversation about it. The F was rescinded.
When I was asked why I read the book ... "I like rabbits."