Community & Re-emergence

It’s March (again). Congratulations on what is likely your pandemic lockdown anniversary month. Humanity’s re-emergence into whatever new normal awaits us has been on my mind for the last few weeks. Looking back on the last year, the closest analogy I can come up with is the concept of a singularity — the hypothetical point when technology drives unforeseen, irreversible, and uncontrollable change. We are passing through a similarly disruptive and consequential event, with the CV19 pandemic as a forcing function.

Consider:

  • One year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the developed world almost instantaneously into mass adoption of online collaboration;
  • For the last year, our reality and relationship with the world at large has been almost exclusively mediated by digital media and tools;
  • We witnessed (in the US) the first-hand effects of bad actors using digital platforms to damage public health, democracy, and our shared social fabric;
  • The digital platforms that were catalysts for abuse and damage have gone largely unchecked and unpunished

Fleeing to the Virtual World

When we look back on the pandemic in the coming years, one area of focus will clearly be our relationship with technology during this period. In particular, we will need to examine the role the Internet played as a virtual proxy for the real world — our work, education, information, and entertainment. In a recent Financial Times article, Yuval Noah Harari contrasts the 1918 flu epidemic (lacking digital technology) with the COVID19 epidemic:

“ In previous eras humanity could seldom stop epidemics because humans couldn’t monitor the chains of infection in real time, and because the economic cost of extended lockdowns was prohibitive. In 1918 you could quarantine people who came down with the dreaded flu, but you couldn’t trace the movements of pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers. And if you ordered the entire population of a country to stay at home for several weeks, it would have resulted in economic ruin, social breakdown and mass starvation.”

It was very different with Covid-19. By January 10 2020, scientists had not only isolated the responsible virus, but also sequenced its genome and published the information online. Within a few more months it became clear which measures could slow and stop the chains of infection. Within less than a year several effective vaccines were in mass production. In the war between humans and pathogens, never have humans been so powerful.”
Yuval Noah Harari: Lessons from a year of Covid | FT Feb 25, 2021

While we’ve never been better equipped to respond to an epidemic scientifically, humanity has never been in a more vulnerable position in our relationship with digital networks. In the article cited above, Harari goes on to make the point that humans fled into the virtual world to escape the virus that was propagating globally. During our time in this mostly virtual world, humanity suffered through manipulation and abuse at a scale we’ve never experienced. As we start to contemplate a shift back to the real world, our digital health and well-being must be prioritized along with our physical health.

There are so many questions for community leaders to grapple with as we re-emerge into the “real world”:

  • What do our community members need from us during this transition?
  • How do we, as community leaders, play a role in healing or helping repair the damage done to our digital social fabric?
  • How do we reclaim the concept and intention the community from mass social media?
  • How do we center on our communities as we move our organizations forward?
  • And so many more

Navigating Disruption, Together

In March of 2020, when it became clear that the pandemic would cause global disruption, I recommended steps to take (a “Plan C” of sorts) to prepare community programs for the shift to lockdown. What I (or anyone else) couldn’t predict at the time were both the severity and length of the lockdown for most of the developed world.

Over the last year, I’ve run a number of small group sessions to help community leaders (including myself) navigate the pandemic-driven disruptive period we are in. The sessions have ranged from topical discussions to a small working group publishing the Better Communities manifesto and related initiatives.

In the spirit of these collaborative sessions, I’m starting a new series of sessions to discuss the issues, challenges, and opportunities for community development as we re-emerge from the pandemic over the next few months.

In particular, the sessions will focus on:

  • Taking stock of the last year of lockdown and lessons learned from your community and community practice;
  • Promoting positive mental health for community leaders and supporting community members that may be struggling;
  • Understanding the digital collaboration fatigue many are experiencing and discussing plans to address;
  • Discussing the role social platforms should play in community ecosystem strategies, and how we, as community leaders, can respond to the negative effects of these platforms through the power of our communities;
  • A return to first principles with communities — articulating and actualizing a shared purpose, centering community in our organization, ensuring inclusion in our communities, equitable value exchange, and creating sustainable programs.

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