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Mónica Guzmán

When did “conversation” start sounding like a dirty word?

Not long ago I was talking with a coworker about what works in social media. “Don’t say it’s the ‘conversation,'” he said, all disgust. “I hate that.”

I was stunned. As an early social media champion who loves few things more than to spark meaningful discussion through things I’ve written or passed along, the “conversation” inspires everything I do. It represents not just the breadth of exchange made possible by this revolution in connectivity, but also its highest ideal — a forum rich with real voices who can finally grasp enough of each other’s humanity to honor the nuance of the world.

I thought about where social media had been going. From exchanges led by people to exchanges led by brands, for one: Like us and win an iPad. Join the Conversation®!. Had that gone too far? Was it the vitriol that still managed to find its way into most every new platform that was sapping all hope, spread by those giggling, sniveling trolls who torture conversation until it shrivels into chaos? Or was it the media wars? The culture clashes? The sad fact that after YouTube and Tumblr and the Arab Spring, political discourse still appears to be growing more, not less, divisive?

Is it already over? Did the conversation lose?

Tiffany Shlain

If you ask Tiffany Shlain, it’s just getting started.

The filmmaker, artist and founder of the 15-year-old Webby Awards screened her latest film, “Connected: An Autobiography of Love, Death and Technology,” at the Napa Valley Film Festival in California last weekend. She likes to say the film is the appetizer and the discussion audiences have afterward is the main course (as per her tweet), but it was during our chat after the screening that I learned why she believes so wholeheartedly in the phenomenal good that can come from being connected.

Faith.

“I believe in humanity. And so if you do, then you have to believe that just as with the written word and the book and TV and now the Internet, these are all moving forward,” she said. “There are so many exciting new ideas that are coming from connectivity that we can’t even imagine yet.”

Her film explored connection at its roots, from the chemical reactions in our brains that keep us bonded to each other to the trends in analytical thinking that have led us, she argues, from a time when we think independently to a time that calls us to think interdependently.

It began with a story that seemed all too familiar. While visiting with a close friend, she got a nagging urge to check her email. So she “fake went to the bathroom” to do it, even though she had flown across the country to see her friend. “What have I become?” she asks the audience, who in turn, asked ourselves. When do we connect broadly at the expense of connecting deeply? Why? And is it always bad?

I liked how Shlain put it. There is such a thing as connecting too broadly too much, she said, when you take it for granted. “It’s amazing to be connected and plugged in, but if we don’t take time to get perspective, we’re not grounded,” Shlain told me. That’s one reason she and her family have taken to unplugging from all their devices on Saturdays, a ritual she says helps her step back and appreciate what the tools of connectivity revolution allow us to do.

Like start a conversation.

That’s how Shlain describes her larger mission — not to solve this or that problem, but to work through culture to “get a conversation started” about big issues so we find better solutions. I can almost see my former coworker roll his eyes at that. He and others hear the promise of “conversation” as an outsourcing of thought, a postponing of work, strategized “brand speak” to up the follower count or the lazy politician’s way of stating a preference for the hot trend of collaboration without offering a solution or working particularly hard to make the conversation good.

This reaction makes sense. We live in a world where problems are solved methodically in isolation, and getting people to talk about big issues gives rise to forces that tear them apart. Sean Hannity, Keith Olbermann, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. We act when we’re emotionally engaged, and anger is the cheapest tool of engagement. Even with the growing number of amazing things connectivity tools have allowed us to do together, locally and globally, it’s easy to believe that there are issues a broad, open conversation shouldn’t touch.

But Shlain’s mission represents a different way of thinking that’s catching on. One that acknowledges that any one of us doesn’t have the answers. That tackling problems in isolation misses the big picture. That we need each other to choose the right path. And that, thanks to the tools at our disposal, we can finally put this theory into practice.

How to explain our failures? The way Shlain’s film put it, more connections mean more consequences and more responsibility. They make the world a truer beast, but a wilder one. Things are changing faster than we can keep up. But just because we haven’t made the most of every set of connections doesn’t mean we won’t.

The conversation isn’t a false promise, but one of our most daring tech-enabled ambitions. It won’t lose unless we let it.

Let’s not.

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