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Labun Jordan: Online Networking

Social media is revolutionizing modern communications. And I’m happy for it. Really, I am. But I can’t help noticing that it also has all the hallmarks of an anxiety dream come true. This is a world built on popularity; it tracks your number of friends on a public scorecard. Surely I’m not the only one feeling insecure about this.

My Twitter followers list will tell you that only 14 people care what I have to say. And one of them is me using a different account name. Of course, I can’t ask anyone else to follow me, because I’m too embarrassed about what they’ll think when they see those low numbers. I believe the solution involves trendy hashtags, but as a lifelong non-trendsetter I can’t be sure.

Then there’s the indignity of Instagram. Photos, online. I cringe at 80% of the photos I see of myself. If I had better fashion sense, I’d undoubtedly cringe at the other 20% too.

I avoid online comment boards for fear of people writing mean things in ALL CAPS with EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!! and acronyms I don’t understand.

The other day, I took a picture of my tea time snack - bacon-almond-chocolate on a baguette - and posted it on Facebook. Because it seemed like the sort of thing one would post on Facebook. Then I wondered what it might say about all my other snacks – like maybe they’re not cool enough, maybe I should be upping my snack game to hang with the gourmet crowd.

The traditional, pre-digital promise for getting past moments like these wasn’t just that we’d all outgrow our youthful insecurities, but that we’d find ourselves part of communities that were more supportive than the average high school cafeteria. These would be places where people know each other as whole people – not as profile pictures and glib quips in a message feed. We’d have a shared sense of responsibility for helping our community succeed, not a shared sense of personal anonymity so we could do as we liked before hopping onto the next platform without consequence.

Granted, nothing is perfect. All communities sometimes fall short of their highest ideals - but that doesn’t mean we should quit trying. And while some of the most popular online social networks seem to ignore the best of real world community life, some others are rethinking the online interpretation of “community”.  

One example is Vermont’s Front Porch Forum, which recently went statewide. Here, you join an online forum that corresponds to the neighborhood where you live. People use their real names. Front Porch Forum combines the advantages of being online, like the ability to connect a thousand people without renting an auditorium, with lessons learned from the offline world, like having a moderator to keep things civil, just as we do at town meeting.  

Most importantly, it suggests a future for social media that’s anchored in real communities and our sense of belonging, and contributing, to them. That’s a revolutionary idea worth pursuing. 

Helen Labun has worked in Vermont nonprofits addressing issues in rural economic development. Today, she is Executive Director of the Vermont Fresh Network, connecting chefs to Vermont farmers in support of the local food economy.
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