community and communication 

community and communication
by Brandy Givens

hugs communicate lots

We got our first home computer in fall of 1999. I hadn’t been interested in computers since 1983, when my mother signed me up for an after-school class in basic programming. I dropped out after the second class. Computers and technology in general held no real allure or usefulness for me. I hand-wrote or typed my papers in college and when I joined the work force, my job blessedly did not require them.

Maybe it was because of that first experience, but I didn’t care if I ever used one again. This all changed in the fall of ’99 when we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina from Denver, Colorado and my husband began to work remotely from home. This meant a computer was in our home for the very first time. Because of my long-standing lack of interest in technology, I never knew much about the emerging digital world of 90’s. I’d never been in one of the early dial-up chat rooms, hell I’d never even played The Oregon Trail, and my connections to the world were all still in face to face.

So, when he brought that beige, plastic monster with its, not one, but two, massive screens into the house I was both excited and fearful. I was a blushing, wide-eyed, innocent, technology virgin on the verge of losing her innocence. Email, websites and crazy offers from Nigerian princes in need of my help all made me feel like I was a high school sophomore at a frat party. Still, once the initial shock and awe wore off, much like a frat party the next morning at six a.m., nothing really excited me, and I didn’t understand all the fuss about this Internet thingy. I was totally ignorant of the seedy underbelly of the world wide web until one night I was introduced to my very own personal version of the holy grail of technology.  

Everything I had suspected the mystical internet could do for me but never had, manifested itself in a single website.  (NAPSTER … cue angelic choir!) Free music! In one click, all my internet fantasies had come true. All the songs I’d lost when my tape deck ate my tapes, all the albums I couldn’t afford … heaven. I immediately stole thousands of songs and never thought twice about it being wrong. It was out there for the taking, so it had to be okay. I was shocked when anti-piracy court cases started to pop up. Surely, we all deserved access to this intellectual property. Right? This debate about information is still going on twenty years later and if anything, it is fiercer now than it ever has been.

Certainly, most us couldn’t have imagined just how much would be at our fingertips in the year 2019. Or just how many ethical dilemmas would come from all of this easily-accessed information. The amount of communication and open access to people and information is still hard to fathom. It is highly debatable as to whether this much access and information is good for us personally or societally. I won’t go into this debate since I likely won’t live long enough to do it justice, but one thing I do feel strongly about is that while we may be far more connected to information and people, this connection is not communication nor is it community.

The information game changed again in 2004 when a college kid introduced this little website called Facebook. It was not a totally new idea. Its predecessors dated all the way back to 1997 but maybe people were just ready in 2004 and it began to take off like wildfire. By 2010 people’s grandparents were embracing this new way of connecting with people. In 2019 this amazingly complicated digital playground has become as much of a reality to many people as our concrete, physically accessible world. We have crafted “perfect” facades, sorry I mean profiles, to hide behind. And while facades have always been something we humans have created; a digital facade is easier to create and harder to crack.

In the darkness (anything before Y2K) we lied and told the people around us that we had a great husband and they saw the bruises or heard the screaming, and our lies became apparent. But now we can easily and thoroughly hide all our ugly little secrets behind a pretty wall of anonymity. The major downside to all of this is while we can spy on other people’s lives through social media we do not actually get to understand who they are or how they live nor, do they understand our lives. We get no real connection to their lives and they have no connection to our lives.

I currently have 244 friends on Facebook. Two hundred, forty-four … I know that sounds pathetic in this digital age. I’m a regular digital wallflower. I am not a big collector of “friends.” Nor am I a big digital sharer. For someone with a big personality (and mouth) I am strangely quiet online. Guess what? I bet no one sits by their computer and says “Gosh, Brandy is awfully quiet, I wonder if she is okay.” But I guarantee if I share too much or I share very opinionated information, someone will have something shitty to say about it. Why? Because it’s easy to throw stones from behind a wall. It is also easy to use that wall as a forum to completely expose oneself. It’s easy to do when there is no visible audience. I could download my own personal burlesque show and never see anyone’s faces as they watch it. Over-exposed anonymity. It is a dangerous thing.  

As early as the 1950’s the US military began using computers to train its soldiers for strategy in combat situations. These early training attempts would be laughable by today’s standards but as technology improved, specifically its improved graphics, the goal of these tools to train soldiers changed. Since the 1980’s video game-style training has been used to successfully de-sensitize soldiers to the violence of combat. Arguably, social media has done the same thing for relationships.  It’s wall of anonymity has allowed many people to over expose themselves while simultaneously de-sensitizing them to actual personal interactions. The result is a hyper-sensitized society of over inflated egos. Too many people believe they are the single most important person in any given room and/or situation. Their feelings, thoughts, words and deeds should be honored and valued always and in all ways. Sadly, most never seem to understand that this belief system does nothing to help themselves or others. It also does nothing to create what human beings actually need. Connection.

I currently facilitate a couple of in-person discussion groups. My hope for both groups is to create connection and community. One of these groups is personal and the other one is professional. In my personal group, I have found a network of women that never cease to support and amaze me. Some months the only thing that really fuels me is my group. My professional experience is very different than my personal one. Unlike my personal group where my friends get the raw and unfiltered me, the one I facilitate professionally is a place where I attempt to maintain some sort of professional detachment and decorum. I am there to pose questions, engage people and to keep things moving along. However, since I am human, some of me is going to naturally slip out from time to time. It’s impossible for a person to keep all of themselves hidden away and remain engaged.

Throughout my life I have been told that I have strong energy. I’m passionate, willing to take risks, and often I am brutally honest. Some people will tell me those are my best traits and others … well, they usually avoid me because of those exact traits. It has been said that I have a polarizing personality. In other words, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. At this point in my life, you can love me or hate me, and I truly believe that what you think of me is none of my business. I no longer determine my value based on other people’s opinions. In fact, I’ve developed the attitude that if too many people approve of me I’m not living my life honestly. Despite that, I attempt to respect the flow of the group and the people in engaged in it.

I am just like anyone else. Many of the decisions I made were purely for approval and acceptance. I was never one to easily succumb to peer pressure, but I wanted to be thought of favorably. Hell, there were plenty of times I just wanted to be thought of, period. I didn’t like being the one on the outside any more than the next person, so I would do or say the things I thought made me more likable or visible. Eventually, I realized that I can only be exactly who I really am and that trying to be more likable or more visible made me infinitely less likable. One of the biggest lessons I had to learn about being me was that no matter what I did or said, what most people thought about me was that they didn’t think about me at all. That may sound to some like a sad realization, but in truth it was one of the most freeing epiphanies of my entire life. Furthermore, I am not alone in my lack of importance. This is a universal truth. No one actually cares! My thoughts, feelings and opinions are just that. Mine. I can hold on to them tightly or they can flow and change from moment to moment. It is beautiful to embrace that I alone possess my truths. It is like being in a very secret and exclusive club of one.

Sadly, the world that we live in puts almost no value on our secret inner worlds. How could it when as a society we have been busy crafting a global facade of ever changing “perfection” that people value more than the real relationships in their lives. They constantly strive to be seen and heard, even if it hurts them and those around them. The flashing neon sign of self-importance has made it almost impossible to see or hear anyone else. Our own quest for attention has made us selfish, boring and cruel.

This compulsive need to be acknowledged has eclipsed simple concepts like kindness and decency. Basic tolerance for other people is waning. The need to be right has taken over even the most basic of social skills. Intolerance, prejudice and bullish behavior have become common place. Many people point their fingers and shake their fists at those who do not agree with them. Each side of any given topic or situation is the absolute right side.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, people have no ability to co-exist with someone else’s experiences. They feel that they need protection from these differing experiences and feel that they are justified in shutting them down, drowning them out or hiding away the very existence of these opposing realities. The inability to face anything we do not agree with or approve has made us emotionally and spiritually weak. Differences are social, emotional and physical weight training. Without them we will never get stronger. In an age of “safe spaces,” we have become weaklings who have bought into a well-crafted illusion that our own safety actually matters.

My involvement in both groups has shown me without a doubt that people need real relationships. Honest relationships that challenge and yes, sometimes hurt us. People need a community that says “Hey, maybe a burlesque show for your neighbors’ husbands is NOT a good idea,” just as much as it says “Hey girl, you totally could rock a burlesque show! You could invite your neighbors’ husbands!”

We need people who genuinely love and care about us to hold us up, to reel us in, to kick our asses and then if need be to bandage our asses up. Anonymity and no accountability is the last thing a person really wants and needs. We all want to be heard, seen and cared about but as a society we are forgetting that part of that process is a give and take.

I am not a baseball fan. But if I were I think I would sum it up like this: sometimes we are the pitcher and sometimes we are the catcher and that is a good thing. We need both positions to play the game. And the game will get played with or without the crowd and someone will win, and someone will lose. With love for the game and respect for the other players, it will be a joy to play.