I’ve Been Thinking…
About Community Involvement in the Information Age
By Shelly Sargent
Settle in folks, this isn’t going to be the usual chirpy little list giving you “5 ways to get involved in your community” (but if you want a list, email me – I’ve got ideas!). Nor is it going to be a feel good piece about how being involved locally makes your life better (it does – again, email me!). Nope. This article is more of an examination of what informed community involvement and information sharing really is… and more importantly – what it isn’t. And I have to apologize, this is gonna sting for some of us… I know it did for me.
Let’s start with some basic definitions. For the purposes of this discussion, Merriam-Webster defines community as: people with common interests living in a particular area; an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (such as species) in a common location; or society at large.
The same source defines involvement as engaging as a participant Information sharing is pretty self-explanatory, so I’ll skip the definition there. So it would be safe to say that community involvement and information sharing would be a group of individuals in a common location engaging as participants while sharing information.
I got a simple real time reminder of how this works the other day when the organization I work for (a well-respected non-profit for families with young children) needed a message shared to our community regarding a workshop we were running. The information was useful to our community and that was key – but you can never discount the impact of those individuals in our community who get involved and help disseminate that info. I put the word out on social media and within minutes, our phone was ringing with inquiries.
This is a sparkling example of community involvement and information sharing when it works well. Fast, informed, involved, effective, heart-warming and useful. And when the info being shared is straightforward and not controversial, this is how things usually work.
However, there are often two sides to a piece of news or story. Or situation. Or problem. Sometimes there are more than two sides. And often those sides represent very different, oppositional views. And this is where Involved information sharing breaks down. News reports are supposed to be non-partisan and cover off both sides of a situation. But social media or blog stories often don’t. And let’s go back to our definition for a moment. Nowhere does that definition mention complaining. Nor does it mention refusing to see both sides of a situation. It doesn’t mention blame-shifting or hidden agendas either. And it especially doesn’t mention belittling the people on the other side of things or name-calling. And here is where we get to the part that stings…
Because often, when info is shared to our community, only one side is represented, explored or shared. And – since we live in a time when information can be shared at the speed of light – messages can be passed about with no lag time and no opportunity to get filled in on the other side’s views, points or concerns.
And yet we feel compelled to jump in and get involved anyway. We share our viewpoint on what has been given to us (incomplete as it may be, given the potential for missing bits and pieces); we feel justified in our viewpoint if someone agrees with us; we feel attacked if someone disagrees and often retaliate with strong words; we can also feel compelled to assign blame based on that incomplete information – and feel perfectly justified in doing so. After all, it was on “insert blog/Facebook Page/Twitter feed/news source here” so it must be true and complete.
And in weighing in without having all the facts, we may inadvertently cause several things to happen: first, we may reinforce only one side of the situation; second, we may cause hard feelings when the other side doesn’t feel their opinions or points are being heard; and third, we muddy the term “community involvement,” since it now is more about voicing our opinion than it is about information sharing.
Suffice it to say that we’ve likely all jumped in quickly from time to time, realized we were under-informed and then jumped back out by deleting a comment or asking a qualifying question. So I guess we need to give some thought to how we can all help share complete information.
For example, when you read a post, blog or article and it shares “news” about something in the community, take the time to ask yourself some questions before jumping in to comment. (Is this representing both sides of the story? Does this seem like a well rounded “news” story or does there seem to be info missing? Am I being led to react in a certain way by the way this story is phrased?)
If we all take individual responsibility for making sure we are getting the complete and rounded info we require to make an informed decision, we will help get info out to our community that is complete and well-rounded. We’ll be involved in helping other members of our community understand what is really happening. We’ll make decision making easier. We may even go some distance in stopping the never ending “we vs they” infighting that seems to plague mankind right now. We may even encourage others to become involved in our community. At least that’s what I’ve been thinking…