A World Without Loneliness

We deserve an internet that deepens our relationships, here’s why we’ll get one.

Relationships change everything.

In over 15 years of building social movements, I’ve almost never seen people do work because they are moved by a message. Messages get people to show up, to e-mail their senators and begrudgingly donate and maybe, maybe show up to a march if they feel like everyone else is marching. But relationships get people to do work. When someone shows up to a movement I’m working on, my first order of business is to get them a friend. Not a person for them to make awkward smalltalk with, but a person who allows them to express a part of themselves that they’ve been unable to express anywhere else, a relationship in which they can fundamentally feel seen, respected, and less lonely. If they can get that relationship they’ll do a lot more than click on my e-mails: they’ll get fired up with their new friend and come back eager to take on whatever work I can give them. Broadcasting a message can feel like breathing life into embers, but build relationships and suddenly you’re feeding a flame.

For how transformative and powerful relationships are, I’m shocked at how few institutions are genuinely strategic about building them. The business model of the modern internet is built on optimizing broadcast messaging: on using algorithms, rampant invasion of personal privacy, and shady attention-grabbing tactics to marginally increase the number of people who click a link and do a thing. It leads to a world in which we are targeted in ever more sophisticated ways to take actions that, like signing an online petition or clicking a ‘like’ button, don’t fundamentally improve our lives, make us feel less lonely or give us the power to do things that we couldn’t do before. It feels empty and broken because it is, and there’s absolutely no reason that it needs to stay that way.

Building relationships is fairly straightforward: there are proven strategies that have been at the center of successful social movements throughout human history. The first step is to take your massive audience and break them up into small groups. Give the groups a reason to share personal stories, not personal opinions. Get people talking about their lives, about the things that they’re struggling with and the ways that they’re overcoming those struggles. If I’m in a closed conversation with just a few people, a conversation where everyone’s sharing stories about something that I struggle with but have never really been able to talk about before, I’m a lot more likely to want to continue that conversation when it’s done. I probably won’t continue it with everyone, I’ll probably pick one person who’s story resonated with me especially well and invite them out to coffee, but that’s enough. I’ve got my friend. I feel seen, I feel like I’m part of something that matters that’s bigger than me, and I’ve got someone to talk to about it.

There’s a reason why the civil rights movement started in churches, the gay rights movement started in bars, and the women’s rights movement started in consciousness-raising groups. A movement is a network of relationships, and those relationships have to come from somewhere. Small group conversations have been a vital part of the onboarding strategy of everyone from the students taking down Milosevic to the 2008 Obama campaign, but right now there’s no good way to facilitate them online. Facebook groups are still mostly built around the logic of broadcast: clicking into one feels more or less like walking into an auditorium. I’ve seen people trying to host these sorts of conversations on Slack, but the effect is similar: Slack can feel overwhelming for people who just want to see what’s going on, share their story and make a friend.

A few months ago I ran an experiment; I wanted to see if I could get higher engagement rates if I built online conversations where:

1) Rooms are never larger than 15 people.
2) Everyone must introduce themselves in order to see the conversation.

Engagement rates didn’t just go up, they went up by a factor of 15. What’s more, the tone of the conversations shifted: rather than sharing and fighting over their opinions, people felt comfortable sharing their personal stories. In a conversation about the healthcare system people talked about personal struggles with inadequate care, in a conversation about the work of community organizing people talked openly about what was working and what wasn’t. If we structure conversations online like we structure them offline, we get the same mix of high engagement and personal vulnerability that is fertile soil for relationships to form, and that means it’s only a matter of time until the business model of broadcast messaging is eclipsed by something vastly more transformative and valuable.

Say you’ve got an audience of 100,000 people who get your e-mails/listen to your podcast/watch your YouTube videos/etc. Broadcast out a highly personalized, well-targeted message multiple times and you might get .5% of that audience, about 500 people, to eventually buy a thing. You capture a small piece of that, say $1 a conversion. It’s not enough to pay your rent, so the only way to survive is to turn your 100,000 person audience into a million person audience. You read up on how to manufacture attention-grabbing headlines and images, you stretch or wholly abandon the truth, and you capture every shred of personal data you can and hand it over to anyone who’s algorithm might give you an edge.

Now, imagine instead that you can get just 3% of that audience talking to one another in the kinds of groups mentioned above. You start by e-mailing a few hundred folks, getting 30 in a few rooms and managing the conversations personally. When that goes well, you recruit a few staff people or volunteers to hop into the conversations and keep them on track. If you wanted to get 3000 people in physical rooms together, it would take hundreds or thousands of hours of staff time and tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but hosting these people virtually doesn’t take much more effort than crafting and sending out an e-mail. Suddenly you can be hosting meaningful conversations between 3000 people every week, and if those conversations lead to meaningful relationships, then that number will start growing quickly. These people are eager to become more involved: to work with you, financially support you, and proselytize for you, as long as you stay true to the mission, vision and values that attracted them in the first place. After a few months of hosting 3000 enthusiastic people in conversations every week, you have 2000 people giving you recurring donations that average $14/month, vastly more than you would make in advertising. Harvesting their data or pulling out attention-grabbing gimmicks would be seen as inauthentic, so rather than focusing on growing your audience by hook or by crook (it’s growing organically anyway), you double down on building meaningful relationships with them and helping them to build meaningful relationships with one another. Not only is your top line healthier, you’re surrounded by a growing network of people inspired to work with you to change the world.

It’s a fundamentally new business model, one which is not only vastly more profitable but which incentivizes a radically different kind of behavior. Instead of tasking the best minds of a generation with getting really, really good at showing people things they find mildly amusing, we get those minds to work getting really, really good at getting people into relationships that change their lives. Inspired by a podcast? You can instantly hop into conversations about it that are productive and respectful, with people you are likely to want to get to know. Professional networking and dating cease to be a grind and become what they should be: an organic process of talking to people you have reason to respect about the things that you care about. Feeling stuck in your job? Relationships are there to open up new paths. Want to lose weight? You’ve got a community of support. And each one of those communities is designed to open up paths far beyond whatever first brought you to its door. The search for a new job leads you to an emerging sector of the economy, and pretty soon you’re a leader in the movement that’s defining it.

A world without loneliness is one in which everyone has a clear path to the relationships which they need to thrive. Imagine a climate refugee: valuable but isolated in a place where no one recognizes that value. Imagine what’s possible if she can find the human connection she needs to bring that value to life.

At Nametag we’re building these kinds of relationships by enabling the conversations where they start. We need smart people with skills ranging from software development to community organizing; if this is a world you want to talk about then you know what to do.

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