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OPINION | DYLAN MCLEMORE: A return to real social networking

by DYLAN MCLEMORE SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | June 6, 2021 at 9:01 a.m.

Many of us have spent the past 15 months more isolated from our neighbors than usual. But now that covid-19 vaccines have become available to everyone 12 and older, cases are at their lowest point since the beginning of the pandemic and the CDC has significantly relaxed its social distancing guidance, we're returning to the stores, restaurants, churches, and other gathering places that animate our physical society.

Reconnecting is hugely important, not only to our economy but to our sense of community and understanding of people around us. This summer is going to be about getting back to the things that we love. But it can also be about correcting some of the bad communication habits we've fallen into that have left us feeling out of touch and even angry at the world outside.

It's an exciting time to communicate again, if a little clumsy and anxious. A year of virtual meetings has my conversational timing all out of sync. Wearing a mask has shifted so much of my nonverbal expression to my eyes that I look like Baby Yoda. I'm an even more awkward hugger than before, if that were possible.

But it's worth it as we stumble back into the real world. The fabric of our communities is woven by social networking, but the ways that we do that in physical cities, towns, and neighborhoods is different from immense digital social networks like Facebook. In-person bonds are formed more haphazardly as we share tasks with strangers or meet new people through colliding friend groups at a party.

If nothing else, we share the common bond of the place we call home. Researchers find again and again that, from businesses to politicians to media, trust is local.

That shared sense of place builds trust and engenders a positive communication climate. The more you feel like you know a person, the harder it is to caricature them as a villain. Season with a dash of Southern hospitality and we're likely to do a lot more lifting up than putting down.

Compare that to where we've been: detached from our neighbors and languishing behind screens in virtual social networks where we communicate less fully and more anonymously. Virtual communities are formed by algorithms that push us not only toward like-minded users, but toward the most controversial among them. Engagement is facilitated not by expanding common ground, but by othering everyone else to create conflict.

Our information sources aren't supposed to be about animosity. And real social networking is supposed to build bridges, not create rifts. In fact, as we develop relationships with our diverse communities, research indicates that the emotional partisanship that spurs much of the day's toxic division decreases.

We'll still have disagreements. The marketplace of ideas requires public debate to arrive at tough decisions for a society. We shouldn't shy away from those discussions because they might be messy. But we should also know that persuasion requires understanding. Understanding that might feel a scarcer commodity than it used to be.

So let's get out there and recover our lost sense of community. As we do, remember that we're all meeting each other at different points in our readjustment. Some of us have been working or studying from home this entire time. Others have public-facing jobs, but are only now removing masks and distance. Some of us are gregarious by nature. Others are introverted.

These experiences and traits aren't political signaling of one's side in the culture war du jour, and we have to resist the temptation to look up at the world around us with the same lens applied to (and by) our screens. Arkansans can't be that easily defined. It's what makes this place special.

And it's why I'm looking forward to spending my post-covid summer getting back to the art of conversation. Just forgive me if I forget that real life doesn't have a mute button.

Dylan McLemore, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Central Arkansas, studying what makes partisans tick. For more visit dylanmclemore.com or find him on Twitter @voiceofD.

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