Experience VS Connection Part 4: Re-Establishing Community

Previously mentioned in this article series, I outlined how online personas and a lack of face-to-face interaction make interactive experiences online more shallow and incomplete. Face-to-face interactions, which are inherently more complex and personal because they use more of the senses are not as evident in online community conversation when they remain in isolation.  This article tries to address to inadequacies and failure of online community interaction.

The first step is to realize the difference between a supportive and non-supportive group. As I said in the first part of this article series, social media has made it possible for the global village to electronically communicate with anyone. However, it does not matter if there is only ever one point of discussion, as evident by online fan pages.

One of my hobbies is that I paint miniature models and am part of nearly a dozen related online social groups. While it is great to see the progress pictures and advice given to people to improve their painting and playing ability most of us know very little about each other. The entire basis of our relationships, some of which span more than a decade, don’t venture past a familiar paint scheme and a name on a screen. This is in large part because nothing outside of that hobby has a place on that Web page. This is the sad and unfortunate reality of most online groups. If the point of discussion isn’t what the group was created for, at best it will be ignored and at worst you’ll likely be removed from the group. Moreover, these online communities have taken on a greater and greater role in our lives as being our primary channel of social contact. These are people that we share ideas and likes with. Not surprisingly, we feel a measure of safety and relief by taking part with them online

But does it mean anything? Most of the time, not really. This is because, by their nature, online communities are hyper focused on a particular interest or issue. Even support communities fall into this trap, as once you no longer require support, or are not supporting someone else, there’s no longer a place for you. The central idea of this focused online communities revolves around support and recovery and once you aren’t a part of that cycle, you aren’t part of that community.

 

So then where to do we go from here?

To some degree we are stuck – caught between a rock and a hard place. Social Media has permanently altered the way in which people interact. Turning our backs on it isn’t a feasible or realistic option. The main challenge and issue facing millions is that we may have gone too deep down the rabbit hole. If we are not careful, we may not be able to get out and end up going deeper down a hole that producing diminishing returns.

Recently, Recode reported here that Facebook lost 2.8 million users in the U.S. under 25 years old in 2018.  The main reason for the larger than expected drop is that young people prefer social networks like Instagram and Snapchat because they want to share images rather than communicate online and have everything they write saved forever. The younger generation also wants live experiences, not things because experiences make them happier and are more valuable. Interaction and conversation is an implicit part of a shared experience.


So, What Comes Next

There really is only one solution to this problem. Go outside and meet people.

It has never been easier to do this because geek culture that started a generation ago in basements and online forums is now mainstream and cool today.

The geekery and memes that a generation ago set people aside as social outcasts have become multi-billion dollar industries in their own right. There are opportunities to meet people through all kinds of hobbies and activities, even meet the friends you have made online in person to get a more complete picture of their life and story. The key difference in meeting someone in person versus a conversation online is one of nuance and a deeper, broader understanding of the person.

Now, more than ever we live in a world where true conversation and understanding is possible. Online communities are a great place to express your views since it’s the platform with the most active listeners. Nevertheless, it’s also a terrible place for discussion because everyone has the ability to express their view and preach. We need face-to-face interactions in our lives. It’s the basis for the co-operative communication that underpins everything else. The sub-cultures that have become mainstream started and grew as a result of the close-knit communities established by this kind of contact. They provided refuge and acceptance and growth to their members and that level of connection is what has been lost, that we can now take steps to recover.

Experience VS Connection Part 3: Community

Sean Parker, the co-founding president of Facebook, is quoted in an interview with Axios:

 

“When Facebook was getting going, I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, ‘I’m not on social media.’ And I would say, ‘OK. You know, you will be.’ And then they would say, ‘No, no, no. I value my real-life interactions. I value the moment. I value presence. I value intimacy.’ And I would say, … ‘We’ll get you eventually.'””I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

 

Not surprisingly, Parker today feels some guilt in how social media networks like Facebook have degraded the traditional structures of how we understand community.  He describes how Facebook does everything it can to maximize the number of minutes and conscious attention of each user including giving small mental rewards for every like and comment you get.

Increasingly, the ease at which we can make a contribution on any social network reduces the value of all contributions to something shallow because of the sheer number of contributions. Community loses is foothold as a valuable experience when it lacks deeper levels of engagement and dialogue.

If social media weakens or hampers our sense of community, then what fosters and deepens it? We need answer a few questions first.

 

Well first we need to understand what a community is. What makes it useful? Why has the current balance of experiences and connections made community feel unreachable or hollow?

 

Communities consist of collections of people who share a range of common interests and values. They support one another’s personal and professional development and growth. You can think of these communities as a sort of family-lite. Members of a community will not likely know your deepest darkest secrets but they are often a support circle in your life based on shared interests and values that are common to the group. This common ground could be about any topic like politics, hobbies, fandom, a educational course or any areas of interest that brings the group together.

Communities spring up everywhere. Traditionally, the key prerequisite was always face-to-face time. You had to be present and in the moment, paying attention to the surroundings and following the discussion, If you didn’t, you would  lose touch and to some degree drift away from  that sense of community and support but social media has changed that. Because we are remotely connected, we feel like we are part of a community, but we really aren’t.

The important aspect of wider communities was the plethora and diverse set of views about the world.

 

Between a few trading card games and table top hobbies, I’ve personally been able to meet nationally acclaimed photographers, soldiers, priests, engineers and stay at home parents, to name just a few. The advantage of this is being exposed to dozens of points of view but always in a respectful manner.

 

Community discussion often embraces disagreement and debate over arguments, blame and finger pointing.  The reason for this is that an issue between two individuals should  be less important than the cohesion of the community of members. Additionally, developing a relationship with a person allows you to more effectively compartmentalize your own views about that person. There are exceptions to this notion and any suitably extreme view or action can cause members to break away or even whole communities to fall apart. This however is the exception, not the rule. By and large, people are able to draw a line between the views of a person, and the wider idea of that same person.

 

Today, this distinction has been lost. Conversations that happen online lose context and deeper level of explanation and even complexity that face-to-face conversations capture.  One reason is that we have much greater control over what self-image for our online persona. We don’t have to be multifaceted and complex beings online. Instead, we can be a splintered or imagined version of ourselves because the online world would never know or find out.

 

This separation between our whole self and our imagined online version is where the breakdown in community occurs. The individual chooses which part of themselves and which set of experiences to project to an online community. Our online connections only see what we show them and nothing more.  This simplistic version of oneself that is portrayed online is where community fails because the critical plethora of points of view no longer exist. Instead, the community only cares about the shared interest and anything outside of that is neither viewed nor cared about.

 

So, what can be done to re-kindle the traditional notion of community that made people feel more connected and more fully understood? I’ll answer this question in the fourth and final part of this series on experience versus connection. Please come back for the final article on this topic.

 

Experience VS Connection Part 2: Two Different Wants.

In my last article I wrote about a difference between experiencing something and a pervasive sense of connection but stopped short of delving into the differences between the two and how they relate to each other. Part two of this article series covers just that. The difference between experience and connection, and the critical relationship they share.

What’s an Experience?

An experience is anything that you witness, feel or take part in. Experience builds our memories and impacts our views, whether those experiences are memorable or not. The philosophy at Whirple is to create the most meaningful and engaging experiences possible between fans and their favorite artists.

What is Connection?

Connection has a less clear definition in the modern world. Thirty years ago, you rarely if ever heard anyone ask, “Are we too connected?” since the very idea of connection was reserved for the very few in our social circles. Simply, there were few channels that only a few could access. Before telephones became common place we had mail services and really it was only after the advent of the Internet Age that our ability to connect with others became global in a meaningful way. Today, there are many channels accessed by many. Multiplicity of online forums and different types of social media have made interconnection instantaneous.

 

The appeal of social media comes from wanting to bridge the gap between experience and connection. We want to experience wonderful things but we also have a natural drive to share those experiences with people we care about. As technology flourishes and expands its reach, we can instantly share our views and experiences across distance and borders that were impossible a few decades ago.

The technology that makes sharing and spreading ideas feels liberating and amazing as it gives everyone a voice. As we know, however, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. This realization hit me hard when Chris Rock did a show in Toronto recently with a complete mobile phone ban inside the arena. I was forced to spend an evening without my phone for the first time in years. For one night, there was no buzzing in my pocket. The temptation to see what notifications I had awaiting me vanished. I didn’t feel the need to share what was happening around me in real time with anyone else apart from sharing in the experience of my friends in attendance with me. And therein lies the central problem. An abundance or flood of connections often distracts and takes away from the experience of what is present before us.

At the same time, you can’t eliminate the connections that exist in the global village today. It’s here to stay and too important. So then where do we go from here? My suggestion is to strike a balance. I saw The Last Jedi without my phone and it does make a difference. At no point did I have any concern for these hanging threads in my life because I didn’t have access to them for a period of time. Instead, I was in the moment of the experience itself with people around me. I was not part of a large swath of people in the ocean of social media.

Community = Connection + Experience

Why is understanding the relationship between connection and experience important? It’s important because getting experience and connection wrong keeps us further apart. Getting them right brings us closer to a sacred social need that we call community.

Part three will cover this idea of Community, and how modern technology has affected it.

Experience vs Connection Part 1: A Surprising Discovery

This article is the first in a 4-part series about how to increase our ability to have meaningful experiences in the digital age.

My past few weeks have been turned on their head. Chris Rock was in Toronto and I scored tickets. Selling out the Air Canada Center, Chris Rock was on point talking about culture, politics and the harsh lessons learned in his divorce. Occupying the stage beneath the glow of a sign pronouncing in bold red “Comfort is the Poison“, Rock had us laughing, clapping and gasping for air.

So why am I talking about this? Because his show was markedly different from any other comedy special I’ve ever attended. Chris Rock has joined with a number of live performers in banning the use of all cell phones from their shows. As I later learned they put your phone into a lock bag so you can’t access it and on the surface, this may seem like your average anti-piracy policy but it’s actually something that comedians and performers, most notably Dave Chappelle, have been talking about for years. That so much of our day-to-day experience is filtered through our phones and the screens around us we don’t get to fully appreciate and experience things. The lesson is to put away the phone and be in the moment.

So did it make a difference? If so what?

Surprisingly, it made a big difference, and I’ve been doing it more often. The four friends who attended Rock’s show left our phones at home or in the trunk of the car and spent the night device free. We were left to experience the show and each other’s company. It was engaging in a way that I had forgotten. Because even off, a phone in your pocket reminds you of everything and everyone else you are connected to. It was like losing a background noise you’d grown accustomed to and hearing your favorite song clearly. That night, amidst the memories of Chris Rock’s signature delivery, was a promise I made to go to a convention and leave my phone at home. Since that show, I’ve left my phone at home when I run small errands or get coffee. I’ve really started noticing more of the people and things around me.

I want to make a point clear. I am not discounting or disparaging new technologies or their ability to connect us in new and better ways. I’m saying is there is a time and place for everything. What I’m saying is that there are cases where connection and experience are not the same things and perhaps one side sacrificing for the other isn’t a bad thing. Try it yourself. The next time you go the cinema, or out for dinner, or drinks with friends, leave your phone at home or in the car. Pay attention to the tiny ways you communicate and notice the things around you. Like me, I hope it makes a positive difference in your life by leaving the technology at home.

What’s next?

For me, I was able to watch and enjoy what was happening on screen without needing or feeling obligated to tune out and share a line or a reaction with the Internet. My next challenge will be to attend a fan convention without my phone and enjoy the moment. Wish me luck. In my next article in the series, I will explain the difference between experience and connection.

Banana’s in Time/Space: When a meeting becomes an experience

Doctor Who has held the love and admiration of Science Fiction fans for more than 50 years. Over the decades numerous actors have taken to the screen after being inspired by the show as children. The current iteration of recurring villain The Master is played by Michelle Gomez who has brought a sort of charming madness to the role. Her exuberant nuttiness best exemplified by her own atmittance to being “Bananas!” making her a fan favorite almost overnight. Hamza Mohammad leapt at the chance to meet her at FanExpo 2016.

Moh: “This past Fanexpo you met with a cast member from Dr. Who. Tell me about that.”

Hamza: “I met with the wonderful Michelle Gomez, who plays Missy on the show. I went up and she looked a bit puzzled that there wasn’t anything in front of her to sign, I said I didn’t want anything from her, just to say hi, and say you are easily my favorite version of The Master and then asked her what it is like being on the show.”

Moh: “And how did she respond to that?”

Hamza: “ She was taken aback at first that I didn’t want an autograph or a picture taken, but when I said I wanted to say hi she thought it was a very nice gesture. Anyway she said the role was like a dream come true and that it is amazing and she absolutely loves it, I said thank you and commented that my brother mentioned a suggestion for you to randomly hand out autographed bananas to people during conventions and she burst out laughing, saying that might actually be a lot of fun and then we said thank you to each other.”

While stories of ‘Missy’ handing out bananas to fans haven’t surfaced quite yet Hamza will do doubt always remember the day he made a Time Lord laugh.

A Final Farewell To Royalty

As the sun rises over a new year, we all are taking our moments to look back at 2016 and the absolute devastation that it wrought to the legends of Hollywood and North American culture. Just about everyone mourned the death of at least one of these icons and for me, the biggest blow came towards the end when we lost Carrie Fisher.

Let me preface this with a few facts about my upbringing. I grew up in a very loving household but not an especially happy one. My parents had to take care of both sets of my grand parents and so we all lived together. Between their age and my dad’s heart condition we faced a lot of hardships growing up and that more than anything is probably what pushed me into nerdom. To have an escape. To have a world that made sense full of other fans who I could share with since no one in my peer group at the time had gone through what I was going through. Star Wars was an ongoing civil war on a galactic scale but home was chaotic so it was in a galaxy far far away that I took solace. Carrie Fisher played a big role in helping me cope. It was not just her acting, but the work she did beyond her best known role in Star Wars.

I was introduced to the land of Lightsabers by my mother.

Yup, that’s her. A short Pakistani woman who had grown up in Canada from age 8 who had an unshakable faith in her own abilities and strength. At age six, she sat my younger brother and I down and watched as a movie night engulfed and completely took over the minds and imaginations of her children as it had decades before to her and her brother. In this my brother and I were very fortunate. Our parents were willing to share aspects of their own childhood with us and where my mom saw Leia as an older sister she never had, my relationship with her was a little different.

Like most young lads Luke was my hero on the school yard, but the pressures of elementary school social lives being what they are, I couldn’t admit the greater truth of my obsession. Princess Leia was amazing. At age 6, the early 90’s were not a great time for inspiring female characters in media. They were either prizes to be won or the object of rescue with very little in between. You had bits of standout but the vast majority was pretty vacuous. And then there was Leia. A woman who after days of torture still protects the Rebel Alliance and even after watching her home world be destroyed, her reaction to her rescuers is to make sarcastic comments and openly mock their lack of planning. Into each of the films featuring her character she is a woman in charge leading from the front and never stopping in her forward movement. She reminded me of my mom. This tiny woman taking on insurmountable weight and responsibility and not once quitting or flinching away from it.

As I grew older I came to pay greater attention to Carrie Fisher’s seeming disappearance from the limelight. Her substance abuse and issues with mental illness. But my love for her just grew. Watching this woman be unflappably hilarious while knowing that she was dealing with bipolar disorder as well as her history of cocaine and alcohol abuse. And then I joined Twitter. That’s when our Princess became a Queen in my eyes and it takes only a moment of cursory reading to realize why.

So here’s to you Carrie. I wish I could have met you, told you how you helped inspire me while you entertained millions. That your life meant so much to so many for various reasons. For me, you’ll always be my space mom and the example that I hope more young women aspire to.