I am technically sitting in the common space of my house. My housemates are all around me, humming in the kitchen, knitting, reading. We are loosely connected by being in this space, but if someone spoke to me at this moment they would get the digital zombie stare. My mind has left the room. My rapid-fire typing flings bits of me into cyberspace, helping to build an online community concept launched by the Tamarack Institute (SeekingCommunity.ca). My presence is split between the virtual and physical worlds.
Many people are keenly aware of this tension between putting our efforts into social media vs. making personal connections in our real lives.
I am remembering those TV ads imploring kids to go outside and play. This post is like that. I think we need to go out and make heartfelt personal connections with real people. When people feel loved, they are ready to change and contribute.
Physical affection is one of the oldest forms of personal connection; digital media simply can't replace it. Beyond the biologically obvious, we also connect with the age-old arts of listening; giving time; acts of service; creating beautiful things to hold and remember; seeing; understanding; forgiving. Digital media can play a part in some of this, but they will never be the whole story.
One of the most rewarding things about living in an intentional community is the emotional support we get from housemates. They will look you in the eye and tell you they understand and support you. Profile pics and tweets don't do that. Digital conversations and texts don't come close to the volumes communicated in a single touch. I find that the emotions digital media inspire are fleeting; think of the last YouTube video you watched, the one that had you raving, right up until you clicked on the next video and slipped into the sweet amnesia of information overload.
To be clear, I am excited about the potential of social media. I'm not afraid to use it. We can pay attention to the way our lives are being expressed and augmented digitally, with and without our consent. My community, Onaen House, participates in online spaces on a number of projects. We have a blog (onaen.posterous.org). We have landing pages on Wiser.org, greenpagesdirectory.net, and now SeekingCommunity.ca (among others). To varying degrees, we're active on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Groups/Google +, and numerous one-off project pages with partner groups. One of the most amazing offshoots of Onaen has been the initiative www.pedalacrosstheamericas.org . Other news sites talk about us (sometimes without asking).
We are watching the possibilities for digital engagement explode... Crowdsourcing and indie funding; Flash mobs, unconferences, satellite protests; smarter search and match-making features; DIY how-to sites and Web stores for sustainability innovations; even augmented reality and public engagement gaming. I am interested in these digital innovations because they have the potential to mobilize new personal connections and share information across boundaries.
But we need to make sure digital media doesn't push us further into armchair activism. It's far too easy to become lashed to an overwhelming array of pages, RSS feeds, profiles, 'friends', and blogs to keep up with. Eventually we withdraw into myriad online communities and abandon the living, sensuous ecologies with which we meant to become more connected in the first place.
We need to use digital engagement to advance social entrepreneurship and foster renewable ways of life. That's my challenge to all of us here. Let's not spend too much time building virtual worlds when the real world is waiting just on the other side of this screen.