Restructuring Community: Human Connectedness in the Digital Age

Why Do We Connect?

Without question, the genesis of the digital age has forced us to redefine how we think about communities. The widespread existence of virtual communities is no longer news. We are accustomed to online forums, encompassing social networks and tiny niche ones, all of which have made the extension of interpersonal relationships and self-expression an almost seamlessly transition reality to virtual reality.

Whether human connection can not only truly exist in the virtual hemisphere, but likewise fulfill emotional social needs; is an important and genuine one. New media has the power to harness a global community, yet are we really connected? This question has inspired the work of innovative art projects which explore what it means to be part of a community in the digital age.

We have always formed communities for survival. Connecting with others has always helped us organize to nourish ourselves both physically and emotionally.

A sociologist named Ray Oldenburg came up with a theory explaining that we exist in three different communities. In his work The Great Good Place, he suggests that we have separate places to live, to work, and to go for conviviality. That third place, he argues, is the place we go that is based purely on interest. Using the example of a coffee shop or a bar, this third place is “the heart of a community’s social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy. They promote social equality by leveling the status of guests.” (4). In many ways this third space has moved online, with Facebook leading as the ultimate example.

The crucial difference between an irish pub and an online network  is that the space now exists in a personal public space. Everything you love, hate, and love to hate is accessible to almost anyone without your control over the time or place of access. This new phenomenon has interested some of today’s artists, who have put together projects manipulating raw emotional user-generated content.

Anonymous Communities

Working at a global scale,Post Secret and We Feel Fine are two projects in particular recognize an apparently blatant yearn for connectivity, which manifests itself in heartbreaking and harrowing ways in these interactive projects.

Post secret was started by Frank Warren, who one day decided to distribute postcards with his address written on them, telling people to write their deepest secret and send it in anonymously.

He could not believe two things: the sheer number of secrets he received, and the depth in the quality of the secrets.

 ps

postsecret-5

postsecret

He put them all on a blog and after garnering an enormous success rate, Frank quit his job to work on the project full time.

Postsecret’s success is due to its aynonomous nature. Larger networks lack authenticity, yet they are trying to fulfill emotional needs  for people to connect to one another.

This anonymous and viral community is helping people know they are not alone. Warren believes his work helps people deal with lonliness. “Paradoxically I think that there have never been more people on the planet, there has never been more communication technology, but I also feel like there has never been more loneliness. My hope is that through PostSecret people can feel, not necessarily less alone, but that we’re all kind of alone together,” he states.(1)

Recently, he has taken the next step in his project; taking autonomy out of the equations.

Another incredible take on human connectedness in media is the ground breaking project “We Feel Fine.”

This is an interactive map of people’s feelings throughout the world. Created by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, it is in essence a data collection engine that uses an algorithm to scour certain  blogs such a livejournal, blogger, and flickr, for sentences that have the words “I feel.” What happened was this:

In the video, Harris demonstrates his interest with connectivity:

“I think people are very similar, but I also think we have trouble seeing that. As I look around the world, I see a lot of gaps, and I think we all see a lot of gaps. We define ourselves by our gaps: language gaps, ethnicity gaps, age gaps, gender gaps, sexuality gaps, wealth and money gaps, education gaps, religious gaps…but I think that actually despite our gaps, we really have a lot in common.” (3)

We seem to want to connect through on a more deep level then in the past. These two projects create an anonymous community where its main goal is to fill people with less loneliness.

  1. Elphick, Nicole. “The Man Who Collects Our Secrets”  dailylife.com. Jan 18, 2013.
  2. Prewitt, Catherine. “We feel fine: Online artwork documents a web of emotion” Pastemagazine.com June 10, 2009
  3. Harris, Jonathan. “Jonathan Harris: The web as art” TEDtalks. Filmed Dec 2007
  4. “Ray Oldenburg.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Last modified on 15 March 2013

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