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.