How we gather fosters connection between people only when we design in opportunities for people to make contact with each other
— listen to this article here —
The November air was crisp but not cold last fall, while I walked around an alpine lake in the Canadian Rockies. A cloudy day, but most of the mountains were visible. While surrounding ponds were frozen over with a thin layer of ice and a bit of snow, Emerald Lake was true to her name. The turquoise-green lake was still, and 360 degrees of magical mountainous reflections were ingrained into my being. My head was clear, and my body refreshed, ready to return to my cabin and sit down to write.
At the beginning of a writing retreat, I experience what my artist uncle calls “ditch-digging,” the hard mental work of getting down to work. Wanting to avoid the task at hand for a few more moments, I looked at my email to ensure there wasn’t anything that needed my attention before settling down to write for a week. Rather than a distraction, I found the spark that lit my week of writing and the next few months too. The spark: an invitation to a screening of The Great Disconnect, a 2019 film about our age of loneliness.
Here’s the premise of the film:
Despite Western advances in technology, living conditions, education and healthcare, we, as a society, are isolating ourselves from one another, and because of this, facing a health crisis that affects all ages, gender, races, and culture.
The film is an invitation to join wellness expert Tamer Soliman, the film’s director, as he travels through a few North American cities to discover the factors that have profound and lasting impacts on our health and the health of our communities. The email in my inbox was an invitation to be part of a community to watch the movie together, followed by a question and answer period with Tamer Soliman. The screening was to be online because we were in the 4th wave of the pandemic.
As I took in the mountain air, I noticed my body reacting to this invitation. It took a mere moment to figure it out: when our community gathers to watch and talk about a film about disconnection, we will do so in a way that embodies disconnection.
When our community gathers to watch and talk about a film about disconnection, we will do so in a way that embodies disconnection.
The choice to make contact
When we organize social gatherings, whether online or in person, we have design choices to make about whether to facilitate, minimize or eliminate opportunities for people to contact each other. Contact is vital because it is the precursor to connection; without contact with each other, we do not connect, interact, and start conversations that can lead to relationships. The ripple effects of contact are precursors to having a sense of community and belonging, the opposite of loneliness.
Watching a movie together isn’t really about contact and connection, but if my community were to gather in a movie theatre, there are natural ways we would find to make contact with each other. We would visit in the lobby with people we know and don’t know. We would visit with people around us as we took our seats and again while we made our way out of the theatre. After contact with each other, we may feel enough connection to reach out for more connection and continue visiting in a coffee shop or a bar afterward. Contact and connecting are what we naturally do when the opportunities are present.
I said yes to the invitation and attended the screening with curiosity about a shared, online movie-watching experience. In a webinar, unlike in a theatre, I had no idea how many people were watching because we could not see each other or even see our names. There were no opportunities for us to visit with each other, catch up with old friends or make new friends. By design, a webinar keeps people separate, isolated, and disconnected from each other. What we shared was knowing that an unknown “we” were watching the same film at the same time — and the opportunity to talk about it afterward.
My initial unease about the invitation was not about watching a film together online, rather about the panel discussion. At the best of times, a panel discussion does not generate opportunities for connection between people because it allows contact between a select few people in the room. In our movie-screening webinar, the lack of contact was exacerbated because questions from the audience, and the posers of those questions, were invisible to the audience. Further, there was no chat function to serve as a place for the audience to reach out and see who was “out there” with us. In our digital world, we don’t make physical contact. In the chosen webinar format, we didn’t even make digital contact with each other, furthering the degree of disconnection.
The disconnection designed into the movie screening wasn’t because we were online. Technology on various platforms allows us to mix and mingle with relative ease. It’s because we replicated — quite literally — the formal part of what would have been on the agenda if we were able to meet in person: sit down and watch a movie and then watch two people talk about the film, with a few questions selected from an invisible pool of questions. The experts and audience are separated, the audience separated from each other, and everyone separated from everyone else. A webinar increases the degree of disconnection because any opportunities for contact, with which we would make do in a theatre, are designed out. If connection is the desired outcome in a gathering, whether in person or online, opportunities for contact need to be designed into the event.
Connection bypassing looks like…
The movie, the panel, and the questions were excellent. Not so great: everyone who attended did not get to make contact and connect. We could have.
To foster connection between people when we gather, we must design in opportunities for people to make contact with each other. Those opportunities are within us as individual participants, convenors, and designers of gatherings. When our individual and collective choices disable contact with each other, we disable connection. I call this connection bypassing; for some reason, we talk ourselves into the familiar practice of minimizing connection, even when it is what we long for.
For some reason, we talk ourselves into the familiar practice of minimizing connection, even when it is what we long for.
In the context of a movie screening, here’s what it looks like:
Unique to online gatherings:
- The audience is invisible or hidden
- The audience’s cameras are off
- The chat functions are turned off
- Interaction is limited to the chat function
Online and in-person gatherings:
- Only one person speaks (or few)
- Most time is allocated to selected speakers
- Limited opportunities for questions
Unique to in-person gatherings:
- Conversations are limited to coffee breaks
Design for contact
An alternative design for a film screening event, whether online or in-person, could look like this:
1. Social time to arrive, mix and mingle
Create an opportunity for people to mix and mingle before the screening. This could be wine and cheese, in the lobby, or via our screens, watching each other get ready for the screening. (We always watch people take their seats!) If online, the chat function allows people to reach out and say hello to each other.
2. A warm-up activity
Create an opportunity for people to make contact in a warm and welcoming environment. Using some of the ideas in the film, offer some activities to get people in conversation before the film. These could be guided activities in the lobby or discussions in small groups. In the lobby, a post-it poll: How many neighbours’ first names do you know? How many neighbours’ last names do you know? Online, attendees can explore the same questions quickly in small groups. (NOTE: not a poll online that merely reflects the group and does not foster contact between the audience members.)
3. Discussion in small groups
After the screening, create an opportunity for the audience to explore the movie in small groups. Conversations in small groups will allow attendees to connect more fully to the film and with each other. Not only do people make contact with each other, but they connect with the film and themselves too.
I imagine a series of questions that can serve as a minimal critical structure for a few rounds of conversation in small groups:
- What about the film felt familiar, and what surprised you?
- What ideas or statements in the film challenge your understanding of disconnection and connection?
- What was the film’s message for you?
- Is there an action you will take to increase your connection to people around you?
- Is there something you’d like to know more about — a question for Tamer Soliman, the film’s director?
4. Questions for the director
Take advantage of having the film’s director in attendance! With the support of a moderator, give the audience an opportunity to as the director a few questions. These questions will be more thoughtful and connected to the conversation the group will have just been having.
5. A meaning-making
Ask: what is one thing you will do differently as a result of tonight’s film and conversation? If online, attendees can take turns speaking or writing their responses in the chat. In-person attendees can leave a note on a “panel” (ha! ha!) as they leave the theatre.
Contact enables connection
We choose connection or disconnection all the time. I decided to disconnect from my life for a few days for the fresh air and clarity needed to write a book. The email about the film screening served as a perfect prompt to get me in the writing groove. Disconnection is a powerful tool of conscious choice, by design; it is destructive when we choose disconnection unconsciously, by default.
Tamer Soliman’s film asks a big question: Is it possible to overcome our modern culture of disconnectedness and rediscover how truly essential we are to one another? My question: When we gather, how can we design for connection and together rediscover how truly crucial we are to one another?
- Where do you sense examples of connection bypassing within you, where there are missed opportunities for contact with other people?
- Where do you sense examples of connection bypassing at gatherings you attend or organize, where there are missed opportunities for contact with other people?
- What is one simple way of making contact with people that you’d like to try?
[1,2] www.thegreatdisconnectionfilm.com retrieved Nov 16, 2021.