Online Together

“There’s some wack shit floating round about social media making us lonely & isolated. Can’t make us what we already are,” tweeted @srharris19 on July 4. As internet giant Google rolls out its new social network, Google+, we’re given the opportunity to reinvent our strategy for using social media. Now is the perfect time to consider where, when and how we want to connect with each other.

As big news hits, Twitter and Facebook, and soon Google+, light up, spreading that news and coloring it with hashtags and opinions shared throughout the networks. Recently, the death of Amy Winehouse inspired laptop eulogies, as well as flippant rehab remarks, and the not-guilty verdicts in the Casey Anthony trial set people vehemently spewing their thoughts in 140-character bursts. Some scholars now study events in a new unit of measurement, “Tweets per second” or tps.

Not so in 2001. When two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, I was at my apartment, first one after moving out of The University of Iowa dorms. I had stepped outside for a moment, when my roommate–-who had a television in his room and was one of the first people I knew with a cell phone-–came out looking for me to spread the news.

When tornadoes hit Iowa City on April 13, 2006, I was also at home, enjoying a dinner party that got us warm and celebratory, dancing with our bottles of wine on the second floor balcony in the golf ball-sized hail, only running to the basement after one roommate cried out, “I see it!

When it was announced that the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks had been taken down by Navy Seals, I was on Twitter.

My community–a group of people I love, loathe and manage to get along with–is now online. I wasn’t even 21 when the Twin Towers collapsed. My community was my roommates, neighbors, coworkers. I digested news through the expressions on their faces. I had never been to New York, but the roommate who broke the news to me had. The look on his face that day is burned into my memory.

My fellow revelers and I in 2006–by this time we all had cell phones–managed to find a radio (with batteries!) to take with us to the basement. That evening, cell phone towers were overrun with communication attempts. Parents trying to reach their children who were away at college. Friends trying to text friends to see where they were at, where they were going to witness the devastation. And when we couldn’t get through by phone, we reached each other on foot. The path of the damages seemed to lead all roads to each other.

On May 1, 2011, I saw avatars. I saw joke after joke being retweeted and a few facts reported as they came available. I watched President Obama’s speech streaming over the internet with my partner on his computer, dog at our feet, cat contented on the couch in the living room.

Sharing this momentous American event with a new kind of peer opens up the word “community” to a whole new set of definitions. It’s not just that we’re online together–or Alone Together, as Sherry Turkle portends in her book of that title–we are making meaning together.

We are sharing in this information moment beyond all local boundaries. We are remembering our grief together. The best one-liners are all at one dinner party. The funerals of our neighbors are witnessed through glass. We are alone but experiencing the same moment, complete with all its nuanced emotions.

And then there’s the power to share the right information at the right time to your own followers waiting for the same thing you are but watching a different source. I have this piece of information; you need it–immediately. We are collective journalists, our digital footsteps hitting the series of tubes, observing different sources and reporting back to our community. These are the moments that strengthen our weak ties, that win us social capital with people whose names we might not even know.

In this exciting time, we must think hard about what we are losing when we share information only online. The expressions on the faces of community members are less spontaneous in this context. Instead, we get staged representations of their self-images projected to select publics. A smile may be genuine, but it’s almost always out of context. And when it comes to meaning, context is king.

But I wonder, too, what we might gain. How do our online connections impact our collective consciousness? How do they affect the stories we tell and with whom we share them?

The killing of Osama bin Laden may have only been a symbolic event when it comes to current politics and military reality, but these stories are our social glue. Bin Laden’s image is a picture of American hatred. Our interpretations of it may differ, but we still understand it to mean the same thing. I know that you know that I know that we know a chapter in this American story has come to an end.

I am moved by how we are all reading it together.