Saturday, August 29, 2009

Finding Social Interconnectedness: My Online Experience

Living in Montréal, I often find myself wondering about the nature of humanity. I’m surrounded by so much of it, and I like to think positively about it. Yet at the same time the city often comes across as impersonal and cold. Thus, it’s rather easy to jump to the conclusion that humanity is at its very essence similarly indifferent and self-seeking.

On quiet, somewhat lonely days, I often feel this way and have to reflect on my fallacies. I have to force myself to see the truth: most of us are seeking interconnectedness; we desire to share ourselves and our experiences in some way with the world. Our longing for interconnectedness, to heal the rifts between each other and with the universe, seem to be a major driving force behind the development of both culture and spirituality. These structures help give purpose and meaning to many of our lives, and within these constructs we are able to take comfort in finding some level of social harmony. Unfortunately, there are glitches, flaws, and human dysfunction that can accompany this quest for wholeness. Once we find a social group that seems to meet our needs for interconnectedness, the group itself can serve to factionalize us with respect to others.

Within the broader, ‘impersonal’ framework of the city, the process of connecting to people when factions/cliques of all kinds and sizes exist may seem at times a difficult endeavor. Furthermore, when ignored by most people around us, it can be easy to feel unattractive and unwanted. These feelings exist and self-propagate even when there are others in the city who would most likely love to associate with us (and that is what is important to always keep in mind). From my perspective, I must realize that I myself blend into this impersonal fabric when I walk down the street, yet at the same time I certainly don’t consider myself to be indifferent to forming human relationships. So I often ask myself: is there any way we can tear down the invisible walls between us and stop coming off as so impersonal when we really are not? How do we get back to seeing each other’s humanity in a modern, urban era? How do we destroy our inhibitions, based on a lack of trust in the unfamiliar, and see each other for who we really are: people seeking interconnectedness with each other?

I tried to address this question recently by going to the internet. I decided to post a profile on a popular gay social networking site. People go to these places because they want to feel connected to others in one way or another, and they’re willing to put themselves out there and say so! I’ve tried this before in the past with a similar website, and I was rather disappointed that so many people were looking for companionship, and yet none were willing to commit to developing a real-world friendship (or any other type of relationship) for one reason or another. When online, it’s easy to engage in dehumanizing hyper-selectivity, to make certain judgments over what people write (or look like in their photo) without seeing them for the flexible, multifaceted beings that they often really are. We don’t have to look at them and see the pain or disappointment in their eyes when we reject them, lose interest, or simply refuse to acknowledge them with even the simplest response (especially when they have probably overcome a courage threshold to contact us). In behaving as such, we forget that we are communicating with real people, whose hearts possess all the potential for human compassion, love, and companionship that we consider ourselves to have. In my particular experience, the fact that so many people would insert themselves into and then, sooner or later, promptly exit my life (for no good reason on either account) was somewhat depressing, and I lost faith in the internet as an effective means for attaining social interconnectedness.

The internet site that I joined this time was different in several respects. There are more people who are members of this site from my city, and thus it provides a more diverse social base from which to make contacts. Furthermore, there are a larger number of people belonging to the site who are open to essentially many different level of social connection, not just seeking one or another. In addition, quite a few seem to content themselves with just talking rather than partaking of hyper-selectivity in expectation of something deeper. I think this is probably a good strategy for evolving a friendship (or something more) in any case: the simple act of care-free conversation with as little tension as possible. Given this setting, it seems like people are somewhat bolder about contacting each other, and apparently me as well (I have not yet had the time to look at others’ profiles, as I’ve had a hard time keeping up with the interesting conversations as they currently stand).

Upon joining the site, I expected a similar experience from the previous one: a person or two contacting me on very rare occasions, no response when I take the time and effort to contact others, and nothing happening at the end of the day (leaving a void of disappointment and embarrassment). In almost no time, I was surprised to find myself communicating on many different levels with a broad range of people who found my profile interesting. What shocked me most of all is that I got many notes from people, very good-looking guys, who were physically attracted to me and said so outright, which I would have never expected from my previous online experience. As primal as these interactions may seem, it was also highly flattering and uplifting, to realize that I do not go unnoticed when I often feel like I do in the real world. A few of these individuals seemed to be primarily looking for sex, and I communicated in these cases that I’m not seeking that kind of encounter, but I've always made light of the situation and extended a thanks and an honest compliment in return. I’ve noticed that the simple act of responding and demonstrating a level of respect, of understanding, provides a more positive experience (and attitude) for myself and the other person, no matter what they may be seeking.

Beyond those extending compliments to my appearance, there are others who were intrigued by the contents of my profile and wished to engage me on a more intellectual level. This has also been a highly rewarding and encouraging experience, to discover that there are those out there who appreciate what I think about (rather than being intimidated or bored by my academic worldview) and truly wish to converse on these points. There are others I’ve spoken to who are also quite simply looking for someone to talk to, an open ear and an open mind. Something on my profile may have intrigued them in a certain way (perhaps it is something I said, my friendly smile, or my openness to various forms of contact?), but in the end we are both there to talk and get to know each other a little better. I was somewhat surprised but pleased to discover how one person was moved by the fact that I gave serious consideration to the changes he would like to make in his professional life. I helped him reflect on ways in which he could address them in an engaging exchange, although none of my own ideas were terribly profound or original. However, it seemed like the very act of taking the time to talk with him, to care about what he was going through and think through his situation, had a powerful effect on his disposition toward me.

This new experiment of mine has yet to really play out, and perhaps I’ll find myself disappointed at the end of the day. While the internet has provide me with a forum in which social connectedness seems more readily possible, where inhibitions on social engagement are left at the portal, there are still problems with this means of communication that have not disappeared (as I discussed at the beginning of this post). All I can do is recognize this and choose not to engage in dehumanizing and unnecessary selectivity myself. I have already been uplifted by this experience, and that fact by itself has made the journey worthwhile. Furthermore, it reinforces, for me at least, the ideas I presented at the beginning of this post on the nature of humanity. We are all seeking some level of interconnectedness, hoping to share ourselves with others and meet caring people. The uninhibited openness to exchange on the website speaks to our essential human need to be connected to each other in some way, and it begs the question: how many people do we pass indifferently, sometimes on a daily basis, who could make all the difference in our lives in this respect? I think the answer is clear: sometimes a simple “hi” or “salut” to those around us (for example, someone sitting alone at a table next to us or on the same bench) could really make a world of difference, as I learned recently when a new friendship blossomed after someone said ‘hi’ to me in my laundromat. If we really are looking for interconnectedness, it’s highly possible that often a simple, unthreatening greeting, recognition of another’s existence and humanity, could sometimes be a step toward greater personal and social satisfaction for both ourselves and the people around us. This may all seem rather idealistic, but at least it’s food for thought!

No comments:

Post a Comment