People are lonely. We knew this before the pandemic, but we certainly know it now.
Why? The usual suspects — less time in social institutions, easy access to mind-numbing entertainment, etc. This topic has been beaten to death.
How do we fix it? Well, that’s a more interesting question.
First, I’m going to correct my own question. “Fix it” implies a return to the ‘good ole days,’ and I don’t think that’s a useful metric. To quote John Hodgman, “nostalgia is a toxic impulse.”
Instead, let’s ask, “how do we evolve it.” In other words, how do we build community in an age where we must socially distance. How do we create magic where we have easy access to distraction, and where we grapple with algorithms hell-bent on dividing us.
The best communities I’ve seen, online or in person, unite under a common purpose. Purpose must be exclusionary, and to pretend otherwise hurts the group. Freemasons in the US have an unofficial motto: “making good men better.” If you’re up to no good, they work hard to make sure you can’t join. The same is true if you’re not male.
Does this exclude some people? Yes. But no one can argue with the explicit purpose of the group.
Ease of Communication
When the United States banned WeChat, it severed familial ties for many Chinese folks in the US and abroad. Although there are many other chat tools (Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, Slack, etc.), many aren’t readily available in China due to the internet firewall. The available services will require an entirely new learning curve.
People need to speak with each other easily and without impediment. That means starting with groups that are already familiar to your audience, not moving everyone to the latest tool. Meet people where they are.
I was on a retreat freshman year of college. None of us knew each other well, but we were surface-level friends. All except one kid. He was, to put it lightly, creepy. You don’t need the details. But clearly, he was bad news.
But something interesting happened. We united and bonded. Quickly and deeply, more deeply than any of the other similar groups. It wasn’t purposeful, but our common enemy brought us closer together. To this day, everyone in that group is a friend.
It’s hard to believe, but study after study shows how morale improves during the war, chaos, and terrorist attack. Enemies bring us closer together.
Others have written about this at length, but it can’t be overstated. Consistent ritual is a way we bond. Rituals allow us to relax, feel comfortable, and get into the right mindset.
One of my clients has a happy hour every Thursday on Zoom. We don’t really drink that much. Instead, we have discussions with each other. As we’ve continued, they’ve gotten deeper and deeper. We’ve discussed love, loss, drugs, power, responsibility. We’ve laughed. We’ve even cried. And we built it just by having a consistent spot to decompress.
Over the years I’m grateful to have been a part of some fantastic groups. For example I’ve been a part of a secret Facebook group for a decade now. Three people have gotten married as a direct result of meeting in the group. We have our own vocabulary. I adore everyone in it. They’ve improved my life more than any of my material possessions. They’ve helped me succeed. And I’ve helped others achieve in turn.
A community can change the world. And an intentional community has a better shot at making those changes last.