on the death of gaia.com & the future of social media

So it turns out that gaia.com is shutting down.

While this doesn’t really surprise those of us who’ve been around for a while – after all, there’s a trail of media acquisitions behind Gaiam that didn’t really go the way many hoped they would (for those who don’t know, gaia.com was originally zaadz.com – one of the most interesting online communities built in service to social entrepreneurs …), what’s interesting is the response that members are having to the news.

Bewilderment, frustration, disappointment, grief.

In fact, the whole spectrum of emotion one would expect to see if a marauding gang of Goths (the hairy horse-backed ones, not the pale-faced eye-liner ones) had come plundering through your village before burning it to the ground.

So it got me thinking about community – physical and digital – and the responsibilities incumbent upon those of us who establish these communities, who engage with these communities, who champion them, recommend them and, when push comes to shove, abandon them and then move on in pursuit of the next shiny thing that happens to seize our attention.

Do we really share the responsibilities of a real community when we gather online? Or do we simply ‘unsubscribe’, change our avatar or twitter handle, relaunch our blogs, reinvent ourselves over and again without any real care or consideration for the manner in which our actions impact those around us?

While in Boulder last year I was fortunate enough to gather with a number of exceptionally bright and compassionate people, talking about ‘social media’ and its power (or not) to influence change (among them Gwen Bell and Siona van Dijk from gaia.com)

One of the things that came out of that discussion was my assertion that

there is nothing ‘social’ about ‘social media’

Media, in and of itself, is the antithesis to dialog – in fact, there is no possibility of real dialog in 2D communication; at best it’s like using a 2-way radio – you have to wait for the other person to finish before you can speak; at worst it’s a series of monologues strung together to look like a discussion.

Like television, social media tricks us into thinking that something other than a rapid sequence of two-dimensional images are flashing before us; and even at its best, even when it looks three dimensional, it’s still just the same process, tricked up to look like something more …

Whilst I’m not disinclined to engage in semantic trickery (usually when i’ve had too much coffee or not enough sleep … or i’m just feeling as if saying something contentious might be amusing for a time), there’s something to be said for really looking at the language we use to describe this ‘world’ in which we spend so much of our time.

Words such as ‘community’, ‘social’, ‘dialog’ and ‘friend’ have totally different meanings when used online.

While I have no doubt I’m neither the first nor the last to comment on this, it’s interesting to note what happens when the online and offline communities merge. Websites such as elephantjournal.com (deeply rooted in the Boulder community and beginning to spread it’s big grey wings into other communities around the world) and new ventures in pre-launch such as W1SD0M (a network of networks stitching together entrepreneurs, investors and advisors in the social and sustainable enterprise space globally), are working hard to ensure that the promise of community made in the digital sphere finds its fulfillment in the world of form.

And while i have no doubt that i will continue to blog, tweet and facebook for quite some time, please don’t send me any virtual hugs.

I’m much more interested in putting my arms around you and sitting down face-to-face over coffee than I am in pretending that all those ones and zeroes have any more meaning than xoxoxo.

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