The Company We Keep
I first connected to the World Wide Web in 1990. It was on a 2400 bd modem connected to an Apple LC. I was teaching myself to program at the time, and books were only getting me so far. Within usenet groups, I posted questions from my bedroom. And hours later, I got replies.
People from far away took their time to help someone they didn’t know learn how to program. I got to “know” people who were frequent posters, even though I didn’t actually know them and in many cases, their real names, and had never met them in real life. These people became as close to me as my school friends.
The Internet back then was an incredibly special place. The people who contributed did so out of a desire to connect with others like them, and they understood that being a citizen of this community, there was an expected social behavior, where helpfulness to others was foundational.
The citizenry of the entire Internet was around 1,000,000 people. Today, more than 3 billion people live in the place I think of as my second home. And like any place that gets a massive influx of people all sharing the same space and trying to get along, things have understandably changed.
With these changes have come major shifts in how we communicate with each other and what we choose to communicate about. My daughter, only 3 and a half sends me “happy notes” full of deliberately chosen emoticons to express herself. On Twitter, I am connected to the world in a way I never thought possible. The White Helmets, an amazing volunteer group risking their lives in Syria document and share every life they save almost as it’s happening. And yet, for all the well-lit streets that connect us to our neighbors, there are a lot of dark alleys too. And it’s increasingly easy to wander off course. Here, we find people lurking behind pseudonymity and anonymity to viciously attack others, to shout political and ideological differences at each other. And though often trivial and banal, even the way we disagree with friends or fellow community members in many cases just doesn’t reflect our behavior “in real life.” There is still this distinction that we make between electronic communication and in-person communication, that feels increasingly strange. A lot of my life, and in fact, many of my most intimate thoughts and experiences are shared with people I still don’t know “in real life.”
For the past 5 years, I’ve been thinking a lot about pseudonymity, anonymity and other forms of identity-free communication. It started from the desire to get more personal feedback that could help me professionally. In a perfect world, we’d all have the most trusted relationships with everyone in our lives. In that case, as with those truly most close to us, they have no problems expressing whatever observations they have about us because they care about us and because they trust we can receive it as it’s intended. But with most people in our lives, especially within our work lives, that intimate trust just isn’t there. Trust is incredibly hard to build, and very easy to break.
I also observed through my own early experiments and watching the attempts of others, how when communication is done without identity, the same dark alleys can quickly spring-up. And not just negativity but through that innate human curiosity that is aroused when everything is a masquerade, many of us become more salacious than our otherwise societized selves project elsewhere. I feel like, if you want to be free of your identity to vent, to gossip, to confess, or antagonize others, there are enough places for you to do that.
But in my own life, and I believe in the lives of at least hundreds of millions of people who regularly share their lives through the Internet, there is one place still missing. A place where I can share about my work life, in a way that I can trust to be safe and constructive. One where the conversations are like the ones I had when I was a teenager, when people I didn’t know, who didn’t know me, spent time helping me because we shared common interests.
Through my teens and young adulthood, I believed that what I knew was mine. I had learned what I thought I knew. They were my thoughts. And as I began to mature, the most painfully profound reality I became aware of was that it was my communities that had given me the most valuable knowledge and experience I possessed. And once humbled by this, I started to become more aware of how to give back and also began to judge where physically I spent my time and with whom, based on a measure of better I was becoming. And for me, I crave a place where I can be myself, I can share my experiences with others simultaneously giving back but also getting back from what I contribute. And that’s what I hope to earn from you based on your experience with BetterCompany, which we’re launching today.
I believe what holds us back from sharing in ways that can make us better is fear. Fear of being judged, of being fired, of losing face, of looking inexperienced. So many of us hold back. We don’t put our hands up and ask for help, we don’t share what’s really on our minds, we don’t ask the hard questions of ourselves and others around us. We’ve built BetterCompany with the hopes of being that place for you.
We’ve labored hard to create a safe, inviting, rewarding place to share about your work life. I’m not going to describe the product in detail because I want you to have your own experience with it, should you choose to check it out. In our app, you’ll find that you can private message what we call our “Operators.” This is the best way to contact me directly, as I am our “Operator-In-Chief.” It’s my responsibility to keep this community a well-lit street connected to what is now far bigger than any superhighway I could have ever imagined.
I do hope we can help you have a better work day.