Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Internet and AA - social networking sites

(Context: for a few days I'm thinking through some perspectives on AA and the internet in preparation for a workshop)

I hope to split this part of the discussion between 2 articles.  Today, I'd like to express some observations about the "public" forums like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc.  Tomorrow, I hope to share my observations about recovery-focused sites where the situation(s) may or may not be different.

I don't remember when I had a whole week go by that I didn't receive at least one "invitation" to join some networking site or another.  The overture is always the same: "so-and-so is inviting you to join them at..." and then (generally) there's a chance to view some portion of that person's postings along with the postings of that person's "friends" or "followers" or whatever jargon they use for connections.

In the interest of full disclosure of my direct experience, I am a member of only a few of these networks (I find it easier and easier to decline or not respond to requests to join - regardless my relationship to those who invite me) and I generally only lurk on a few friends' efforts - I seldom post "what I'm doing" updates.  For me, blogging is my current preferred mechanism of and focus for sharing my AA experience online.

However, my wife and several other AA members I'm close to have tight circles of "friends" who share many poignant moments of their lives through "writing on their walls", "tweeting" or, whatever it is they choose to do in those circles.

Before I launch into some serious opinion sharing here, please, please, please understand that some of these folks are AA members who I believe have been real drunks and have had the spiritual experience directed by and proscribed by our AA program.  Most I would be happy to share an AA meeting or coffee with any time.  They are delightful members who may be more right than I am about what is right or wrong in AA and the internet.

That said, I truly believe that many are misguided in their reckless abandon of anonymity and other principles in the use of these media for sharing their AA experience.

The strongest argument in defense of some of what is shared on these sites (full names, pictures, pictures and names of other friends, etc.) is that you have to have been invited and responded to form a "closed group" of people.  Some of the points they argue include:
  1. Since it's a closed group, it is no longer in the public and issues of anonymity (in terms of identity) can easily be set aside.  After all, you don't wear a bag over your head when you attend an AA meeting (although it may have been suggested to a few of us ;-) ).
  2. The efficiency of sharing intimate details of their life's experience ("OK - I'm heading into the doctor's office now and am really afraid!", "My girlfriend isn't answering the phone - I'm shook up!", "I just got a promotion and I just love my new office!", "Here's a picture of my cat's new play-toy!", ...) with many friends at once actually improves their effectiveness at life and working of their program.
  3. This type of sharing can lead to a transparency (honesty?) in their lives that is useful to them.  I no longer just "check in" with a sponsor - I have a broad range of folks who know all about me and what I'm up to.
  4. Similarly, you can watch people you really care about and suggest, for example, that they might choose to go to an AA meeting rather than rent another movie.
  5. They can more efficiently and effectively keep up with a wider circle of people in AA than they could only using personal contact or the phone.
  6. Part of that more effective sharing includes pictures.  Who hasn't gotten a wonderful message from someone with a picture attached that says so much and is really meaningful?
  7. It helps eliminate some of the problems with the classic AA rumor chain - everyone can know the same information from the same source rather than getting someone's spin on "news".   Most of us have been victimized by the AA fellowship's version of the game "telephone" at some time in our lives.
I'm sure they see many other benefits as well in that some of them spend hours out of nearly every day engaged in activities around these networks (posting messages, checking up, expanding networks, etc.). Again, it's really not my deal right now so I may not even be hitting really important benefits of this type of sharing.  If you know of some, please educate me.

On the other hand, I think there are some down sides to this as well:
  1. Anonymity (privacy, identity) is not assured.  While I may not be friends with John, even before I become John's friend (say, he invites me to friend or follow him), I can generally see who John's friends are before I enter this relationship.  Indeed, often I get friend/follow requests and don't recognize who the invitation is from.  I've browsed around for hours in this potential friend's  friends' spaces:
    1. Looking for clues as to who the request might be from (who John is)
    2. Being greatly entertained with some of the stupid (and vulgar and obscene and ...) stuff that some folks I may or may not know publish on these networks
  2. While an individual's information is generally protected (and I think the networks are getting better at this as time goes on), as recently as last week I stumbled across a link that plopped me in the middle of an individual's Facebook photos that I know he would not want as publicly available as it was.  At the very least, I think one should be very careful.
  3. I think the fact that thinking one may have their identity protected, they might miss several additional points related to the spiritual principle of anonymity.  Not the least of which this (your life, my life) might be much less about who I am and who you are and more what we can offer to be useful.  I am concerned that who I become when I think my identity is protected is not my best.  At least for the pages and sites I've seen, we become focused on the mundane and the sickness more than becoming the best we can be under spiritual guidance.  It seems these networks support me to lower my standards rather than seek progress.
  4. Quite often, connection requests devolve rapidly into other agendas.  Of the ~20-30 people I've "connected" with on one service, nearly all of them eventually came around to wanting to convert me to their religion, sell me a book, somehow get me to click through their marketing portal, whatever.  I've learned that, when someone has more than 5,000 "connections" (maybe even over more than 20 connections), there is generally some other factor at play.  Someone is selling something or has an program (other than AA) to push.
  5. While I may or may not be interested in some facets of your life, quite often as families/friends/AA friends/business associates all get involved in the same connection pool, someone is probably going to learn something they really didn't want to know.  I doubt seriously that any woman I know would march into an AA meeting and share her menstrual cycle but some in these forums seem to include that as important information to share.
    Maybe this could be dealt with by "grouping" friends into different sets of folks, and some of the networks allow for this now, but general sharing with all seems to be the norm.  It's easier and simpler and, frankly, I think people just forget who all might see what particular information.  And, again, friends who invite other friends into the network will probably also get to see that information.
  6. While I work pretty hard to keep my sharing on this blog and the blogs I follow and comment on to be primarily aligned with the program and principles of AA, in social network sites this becomes unwieldy and probably almost cross-purposes of what a social network is about.  Social networks seem to be first and foremost about encouraging individuals to share as individuals with great diversity.
    Not every conversation held at coffee or even with a sponsor is going to be aligned with an AA "party line".  It shouldn't be.  However, the sharing that happens in these social networks has a persistence and reach that spans well beyond our experience in the past.
    As I contemplate including my sponsor, people I sponsor, and other friends in the program into one of these networks, I'm concerned about what might be shared and how it could be received - especially once it's removed from the context in which it's shared (as often happens in these networks).
  7. While these networks are currently "free" to subscribers, all in the industry agree that, eventually, some financial model based on subscription fees, advertising, or some other financial component will be required to support the service.  One could easily foresee that "Joe's Treatment Center" would be happy to attach it's click-through logo to all my messages about recovery from boozing or communities where that is often discussed.  If one reads the fine print on these services, what you publish does belong to you but they have the rights to do anything with that data they chose to - including, in some cases, leaving your writings up after you close out your account.
All this said, I feel AA members need to have a presence in these networks.  I was discouraged at the recent SW Regional AA Forum when I learned that AA World Services intervened and had an account with the name of "alcoholicsanonymous" removed from Twitter.  I would have much rather that AAWS would have taken over that account and supported a message service that provided something that injected a conversation about recovery in AA into that network.

Finally, I don't think anyone really believes this generation is the final destination of this technology.  I would hazard a guess that the memory of MySpace, Twitter and, Facebook will in the future be much the same as the memory of CompuServe or AOL is to the internet of today - important milestones in history but the future social happenings on these networks will be much more natural and elegant - integrated into one's online experiences.  For that reason, I think we, as a fellowship and individuals (and maybe even groups) in AA, should experiment with what works and doesn't work in supporting our AA principles and program of recovery in this venue.

God willing, we will learn the lessons we need to be useful into the future.


Syd said...

I'm glad that you've written about this. I find the small space for Twitter and Facebook for comments to be unsatisfying. I like to write out my thoughts and blogging seems to suit me. That being said, so many people today do like those sites. If it helps them to connect and to share the message of recovery, then that's great.
I marvel at how Bill W. wrote so many letters, yet wonder whether his proliferation would have been so much greater had he had a blog or the internet. Maybe he might have written more but is more necessarily reflective of content?
Very thought provoking for me.

Mary Christine said...

My experience with facebook is that my nephew invited me. I joined. My nieces and nephews "friended" me. Then more people. I find that I belong to a network of people from my alma mater, then my family (which is my real reason for being there) and then AA folk. It freaks me out when AA folk are so cavalier about their AA stuff... on facebook with their full names and pictures. I really don't know how that is OK. Even without a picture. Even if it is "private".

I do really like facebook as a way to communicate with family though. And as a quick way to see what is going on with some buds I wouldn't otherwise know what is going on with. But I just don't get how putting AA stuff there is OK.

Scott W said...

Facebook is for me a social atmosphere, blogging is where I post recovery stuff in particular. If I am violating any traditions by being on Facebook I am not aware of it.