“Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
“Ten seconds?! Is there nothing faster?!!”
(noticing the time remaining on the microwave)
I’ve been talking with a good friend in a situation not unlike mine in my work, and while there are differences both in the communities in which we live and in the “audience” we seek to engage, the similarities and frustrations are similar.
We all live in a world that has become increasingly used to immediate gratification. We expect that everything happens at the click of a mouse and the speed of cable connections. I remember someone telling me in 1997 that 58kbs was as fast as an Internet connection could ever possibly be.
He was incorrect.
My friend and I were and are (he left his work) in the process of building community. But in a world where we want everything yesterday, community building is old-fashioned and impossibly slow. It is the snail mail to email and apps for finding the next trick via GPS: “Mr. Hot Stuff is 10 metres from your current location…” Building community doesn’t come with a users’ manual and tutorials. It is a process that involves developing trust and connections and fostering and engaging people in connecting with each other. Those things don’t come with a clear timeline or rules.
Average Joe’s in Vancouver has been going since the late 1980s, early 1990s. It’s a way to connect poz guys with each other in community. I doubt that in the early days there was more than a handful of men showing up for coffee or pizza, but the persistence and interest in being connected to people was important enough that it has blossomed into a large group of men living with HIV and various permutations of the original that suit others’ interests. Those early days were also well before anything like the internet was a concept we could grasp and cell phones were a technology requiring a forklift.
In University I studied Music History. One of the most stunning things that I learned was how slowly ideas evolve. Back then it would take 500 years for one concept to replace another. These days, we expect the next i-something or other to come along within 6 months, if not sooner. We are like the wretched, selfish little girl Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka: “I want it NOW!!”
But that’s not how it works. And the unfortunate casualties in our ever growing need for immediate gratification include the delicate blooms of real in-person communities. Health Authorities and funding agencies have the same expectations for delivering up “community” as though it were some sort of Athena, sprung fully-formed from the head of Zeus. There is no nuance anymore. If it isn’t countable and statistically significant, we have failed.
The program for which I work, Positively Connected, has a small number of HIV+ guys on the email list and a small but slowly growing number of men attending events. It took a year to get this many out and every now and then one more person gets added and perhaps one drops away. It’s a process that involves talking or writing and connecting and re-connecting and trying something and failing and trying something else. I can’t just Facebook it into existence. I can’t make something new happen like it’s been running for years. I can’t make little conservative Victoria be like metropolitan Vancouver. And yet, there is an unspoken belief that’s how it all happens.
Facebook is interesting because it’s a faux community. In fact, the whole online world is a fabrication. This does not mean that I don’t feel connected to people and my “friends”, but it’s not the same as being with someone in a café across a table talking over coffee, or physically hugging them – oddly hugging a computer monitor isn’t that pleasant. The people on social media are real people, and we’re connected but we’re not connected. I can’t walk down the street to visit my friend in Toronto for a beer, or have breakfast with my friend in Malaysia. Social media is an amazing thing and a useful tool as well, and I’ve had conversations with people I never would have met otherwise, and it leaves a hole in me: I will never likely meet most of those people who are probably amazing creatures. Making friends used to take weeks or months; now it only takes the clicking of the “confirm” button, and being in a community means simply “liking” a page.
For many poz folk I know that the online world may be the only connection they have to other poz people, and for that I say “Huzzah, Mark Zuckerberg et al!” People living with the stigma of HIV (and many in small and rural communities) need those connections online: they are vital to maintaining our mental health and sense of belonging. But it also points out how glacially “real life” communities form. The sad part of the online world is that it is replacing real life interaction: it’s quick, it’s easy and I can turn it off whenever I want.
There’s a book called “A Very Private Life” by Michael Frayn written in 1968. In it he explores a world like the one we’re creating: everyone lives in little rooms with only a screen connecting us to the outside world. A young woman accidentally comes in contact with a man in London. She falls in love and must leave her cubicle to meet him. Are we moving toward this world – where we are shut away from each other and more comfortable with that distance? Or are we willing to step outside that which is immediate and known, stop texting and risk the search for a community of which we can’t be sure and where we can surely find belonging?
There’s a big world out there and it’s full of uncertainty and surprise and fear and love.
And there’s no app for that.