The Nobility of Digitial Community – A Different Look

Community.    It’s a word that we throw around a lot.  But what does it actually mean?   And why do we care?

Let’s start with the last question.   Why do we care?

In an age obsessed by the idea of community, I’m surprised to see that the idea is so poorly understood.  Yet community is one of the the most important words of our era.

One of our greatest desires is to participate in a community.  We need the interaction with others.  We crave the recognition of our friends, our families, our — communities.  In many traditions, the greatest punishment that can be meted out is banishment, ostricization – forced removal from our community.

Our attachment to community is primordial, a driving force, something we crave in at the most basic levels of our existence.

Some would claim that this craving for community is at the root of the force that we all call “social media”.  I would claim that we don’t really understand this –and if we did, our social media approach and behaviours would be vastly different.

Three events converged this week which pushed me to reexamine the ideas that I had about community and social media.  First was the Facebook IPO — the blatant, perhaps inevitable attempt to monetize the idea of community.  The second was writing the obituary of a dear friend and the inevitable wondering about her digital legacy — so much of our contact, particularly in the final weeks of her life was digital and not physical.  The third was a supremely practical motivation.  On Tuesday I’m in a meeting where I’m going to try to explain to a client of mine that the real economic survival of the company requires that they truly understand the idea of community and what it means.

So in the spirit of this blog, which is about changing the game, entertain my challenges and take a wee walk with me to explore the ideas of community and how they affect this thing we call social media.

We talk about Social Media incessantly.  But what is it?  If you were a stranger from another place and had never seen it, what would you say as you saw the pictures, the tossed off lines, the games —  would you think that what you see is simply the recording of individual lives and journeys — the pictures, the quotes, the videos.  Is it the detritus – the residue of our existence?

One thing is inarguable.  Since the inception of Web 2.0 – the interactive internet — and it’s offspring, social media — we have embarked on a project to create memorabilia unrivaled in size and scope by no other in history.  Yes, the Pharaohs left the pyramids.   The druids left Stonehenge.  An unknown civilization left Easter Island.  And the Myans left their own pyramids along with a calendar which marks the end of time.   Their time.  Despite the hype, our time is not yet over.

But to leave behind an imprint in a past age was tremendous feat.   It was the purview of the powerful – those who could convince, cajole or command the loyalty of a vast pool of resources, mostly human labour.  A legacy, an attempt at immortality, was for the wealthy and powerful.

In our age, we have democratized that immortality.   Our lives can be chronicled in minute and even insufferably boring details.   If Samuel Beckett had seen the internet, would he have written “Waiting For Godot”?   I’m not sure he would have had to.  And of all humans who have lived in the past 200 years, Beckett would have understood that better than anyone.

But we have gone further.  We have not only democratized immortality, but we surpassed the attempts at prior generations at longevity.  Anyone who has read Shelley’s “Ozymandius” would appreciate the irony.   In the poem, Shelley confronts the statue of Ozymandius, with it’s inscription, “I am Ozymandius, king of kings.  Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!”   The irony in the poem is, of course, that this statue is barely standing, worn by time and wind, and all that remains is a crumbling ruin, emblazoned with the inscription that starkly illustrates the futility of time and mortality.  Ozymandius despite his power is decimated by time and wind.

In a digital age, however, I am mightier than Ozymandius.  I can create an image of myself, memories of my life and events — digital images — immune from wind and weather.  They exist in the vast electronic consciousness that envelopes us all.  A hundred years from now, or a hundred million, the picture of me, digitally rendered, will be intact in every hight definition detail for any who choose to see.  Nor with the poet need to travel to antiquity.  Type in Jim Love 2012 or Change the Game and there I will be.

But is that all there is?  If so, we have surpassed Ozymandius on another level — our hubris.   I wrote an obituary for a friend this morning and I went to search for some emails that we had exchanged.  It was then I realized, they might exist, but the only reason I was going back to them was to draft this memorial.  I had not been back to them since.

What is worse?  The decaying statue that commands the unknowing pilgrim or the pristine record that no-one visits, lost in the wasteland of data.  Retrievable, but unretrieved.

Sorry for the existential journey, but it was necessary to establish the fact that interaction with others –that thing we call community — that is what is required to bring validity to our existence.

We know this.  We write hoping it will be read.   We leave photos hoping that they will be witnessed.  We log our existence hoping to share.  We put digital messages into the bottle of the internet, looking for someone to find them and retrieve them.   Our epitaph is not as threatening, far more humble and perhaps eminently more poignant  “look upon my life and… acknowledge it.  Please.”

We seek acknowledgement.   We crave relationship.  We need … community.

What is community?  Back to our original question.   The best I can come up with is that it is an acknowledgement of mutual existence.   Community tells us that we are not alone.  We are not simply nodes in a vast impersonal network.  We have something that we share.

Community is sharing.

And it is only by this act of sharing that we escape the pristine prison, the emptiness of a life fully recorded but ultimately unacknowledged.

Sharing is not simply collection.  It is not simply accumulating memories, events, notes and lists.   It is SELECTION.  It requires us to discern specific items from among the total and to select these based on their relevance, their value to others.  It requires us to step out of ourselves and look at the universe through the eyes and needs of another.  It requires that most human of functions — empathy.

Empathy is the root of community.   For it is only with empathy, that ability to look outside ourselves and appreciate the viewpoints of another, that we truly can share our commonness and our diversity.  Our fleeting moment — it might not be immortality — but a moment wherein we can transcend mortality — that is only possible when what we preserve resonates with another.

Empathy is what drove the monks so long ago, not to write their own scriptures, but to lovingly illuminate the scriptures of another.  Rather than tell my own story, I get to illuminate the story of another and, in so doing, join in a continuum of community that will last through the centuries.

That’s the place I went to this morning as I wrote about my friend who died.  I realized that one reason I cared so much about her was that she epitomized that axiom, “there nothing you cannot do if you aren’t worried about who gets the credit.”  My friend was one of those rare people who challenged others to be the best they could, who never strove for credit or attention, who lived authentically.  That’s why I cared so much about her.  Like the monks of old, she illuminated the lives of others.

So when it came to telling her story, we all read, hanging on each new note, eagerly awaiting the news of her story, her journey, her struggle.  We were part of her community.

Okay – long philosophical treatise — but where does it take us?   I hope it conveys that the real essence of what we are seeking with what we call social media is really community.  Further, that community – with it’s root “communion” – is a transcendence of ourselves.  It is only when we really look outside ourselves and seek to see the world through the eyes of others that we escape the irony, the existential dilemma of our existence.  It’s in that act that we achieve what we are really seeking.   Not immortality, but harmony.

We think it’s about logging our lives.  We think it’s about leaving that message for all to see.  But it’s not.  It’s not about collection.  It’s about selection and connection with another human being.

Our hubris is that we think that somehow our time is unique – that the issues, the challenges, the struggles that we face are happening only to us and only at this specific point in time.  But in reality, ours is a story told many, many times in history.  The only crime is that we don’t learn it.  So when I look back In history, I’m struck by another time when there was this enormous compulsion for people to archive content.  A millennium ago, hundreds of monks in vast anonymous monasteries painstakingly added snippets of knowledge to the vast library of text and image – the monastic library.

The monks logged content.  Snippet by snippet.  Transferred into the great collective memory.   The act was achingly similar.   The intention was not.

They did add their own flourish – their own art.  But that addition was a celebration – an illumination of the text.

The monk’s contribution was not a celebration of themselves.  It was a gift to all humanity.  It was not an active of narcissism.  It was an real and vital contribution to a greater humanity – a community.  It was an act of community.  Of communion.

So before you upload that photo.  Before you scribe that tweet.  Before you enter that comment.  Before you update that status.  Take a brief moment and truly ask yourself – “How will this reach another human being?  How will it bring them joy, hope, understanding or laughter — and there is nothing wrong with laughter.”   When you can answer that, in that act of empathetic selection, take your step not into a dilettantes’ diversion — take your step into the internet of community.  Don’t just educate or communicate – illuminate.

Dilettante?  Or digital monk?  The difference is in the intent.  Pure and simple.  And what a difference that makes.

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Filed under People, Social Media, Social Networking

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