Life on the ‘net is a new world full of promise to increase the connection between people, create new business opportunities, and develop new ideas. Who can possibly argue with that? I won’t. But as I discuss what this means, online and off, I’ve come to realize that there is often a disconnect between how things are done in real life (IRL) and in this new world that exists in the ether around us.
Bridging that gap is an opportunity to make the online world more relevant – and make a decent living, if I can figure it out. The problem is not an academic one at all. Yet I can’t help but think that the solution can be found in how it is all grounded. For all this new stuff the people who use it are still people. It takes me back to the beginnings of academia itself, or how the Western world came to be what it is.
Asking the question, “What is Community?” highlights this disconnection. There are many answers to this question and I think we pulled out a thoughtful and deep conversation on the topic. I asked this question because I have been working on using social media tools not to define a new community from scratch but to reinforce an existing real world community. The goal is to improve the diversity and openness of the real community, which means that the strategy that has to be employed is very different.
It takes me back to one of my favorite terms to pick on, which is “crowdsourcing”. When confronted with new problems and opportunities there is nothing like getting everyone who has some stake in the problem into one room and laying it all out. Call it Strategic Planning if you prefer, or collaborative problem solving. Another excellent word is “School”.
The techniques for arriving at truth and plans through discussion were first laid out some 2,500 years ago by Socrates in what we can call “Socratic Dialogue” and, at times, the “Socratic Method”. Basically, the wise men of Athens sat around the marketplace gabbing all day and developed some formal methods of organizing the chatter to make it more productive.
They called it a “School”, loosely, and the methods they employed were first picked up for the instruction of young people in the great knowledge of the day – through critical thinking, not as the distribution of facts. Each subsequent generation answered the questions in their own way and arrived at their own idea of the truth.
The painting above, “The School of Athens,” is a 500 year old vision of this by Rafael. It is one of the great treasures of the Vatican. Note that at the bottom there is a figure known to be Rafael himself, inserted into the process of teaching and problem solving through dialogue and critical thinking. Interest in ancient Athenian ways rises and falls through the centuries as new cultures discover the ancient ways – and perhaps trigger a Renaissance of their own.
Using the word “school” to describe the connections made through social media may sit poorly. After all, isn’t “school” a place where knowledge is crammed into us in a stiff and formal way by experts who have facts to dispense? The short answer to this is “No,” but the long answer is “No, no, nononono!” with wild eyes and hands waving. Rather than craft new and kewl words and pretend that we’re all re-inventing the wheel, wouldn’t it be better to reclaim the small words of our lives and thus reclaim a lost heritage?
One simple word used sideways to popular meaning can absorb rich textures in ways that a new word cannot. It’s the difference between prose and poetry when done with care.
New tools of social media are more than their own world – they are our world. They have to ultimately be in service to “real life” if they are going to live up to the promise of changing everything. That means a careful eye on what we are all trying to accomplish and what opportunities are created. Grounding in what is already known or has been a part of our culture, at least through centuries-long waves, is one element that is often missing.
Does that mean we all have to study Socrates and his writings? It wouldn’t hurt, but I doubt it’s essential. It does mean that we have to keep our eyes open and watch when diverse opinions are lost in the rush to define a new world apart from “real life”. It is, after all, the connections that ultimately matter. Some of those connections run through time as well as the hearts and minds of people.
Is your experience online different from IRL? Does that matter to you? Does it seem relevant that much of this was thunk out 2,500 years ago?