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.