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|The Relationship Revolution - Page 4|
The Personal Is Communal
Neal Gorenflo's epiphany occurred in the midst of an early-morning jog in Brussels, when he stopped to catch his breath. Suddenly, he fell to his knees and started crying. "I was in a warehouse parking lot, and I can still see the asphalt and the bits of broken glass and the faded papers on the ground," he says. Gorenflo, then in his mid-forties, was a systems analyst for one of the world's largest shipping companies. He had a high-level job, sizeable paycheck, first-class travel around the world, and back home in San Francisco, a woman who loved him and a tribe of great friends. "I wasn't depressed," he insists, but in the previous months, he'd become increasingly disenchanted with the company. It had offices all over the world, but no interaction with local communities and little regard for its suppliers or customers. Kneeling on the pavement that morning, Gorenflo knew he didn't want to "look back and regret not doing something I cared about."
As he sobbed uncontrollably, another thought suddenly entered his mind: this wasn't just about him. "I made a vow to do something—to create a world where people could help and inspire, where they could follow their passion, and where community was a constant part of life. I went back to my hotel room, wrote a letter of resignation, and left."
Gorenflo abandoned corporate America and used his technological chops and business acumen to create Shareable.net, an online magazine that serves up examples of "sharing, collaboration, openness, participation, and transparency." The site, which now has 25,000 unique visitors a month, features trend articles, as well as service pieces—for instance, how to co-cultivate a garden or share a car. In one year, its community has grown from a core group of "social entrepreneurs" to more than 6,500 members. Gorenflo believes that showcasing out-of-the-box ideas in various fields will propel them. "Sharing is one of those solutions where you get multiple benefits," he maintains. "It brings people together and helps them save resources and money." It's also an ideal solution for uncertain times. "When you're in league with others, you can prepare yourself and your community for any type of outcome."
Sharing itself isn't new, of course—humans have done it since the dawn of time. Evolutionary scientists say it's encoded in our DNA; neurobiologists have shown that our brains resonate with the neurons of others. Or, as my 91-year-old ex-mother-in-law, Dottie, puts it, "People need people." But the Internet doesn't just give us people—it's the "six-degrees phenomenon" on steroids.
"You might sit at your computer, thinking you own and control your own ideas," says Swarthmore psychology professor Kenneth Gergen, "but it doesn't take long before you realize that you're part of a bigger network. You're fully wrapped up in relationships out of which you come and in which you participate. To look at yourself as a single being is absurd. The new way to look at it is, 'I'm connected, therefore I am.'" Researching his latest book, Relational Being, Gergen found evidence of a shift from "an individualistic to social premise" in a wide range of fields, including law, education, psychology, and conflict management. The "chief stimulus" has been the Internet, he says. "The result is not only a profound increase in ongoing connectivity, but the world's people becoming increasingly capable of effective collaboration."
Certainly, technologies of the past have allowed us to share, but Web 2.0 opened a whole new world of possibilities and partnerships by making many-to-many conversations possible. And when tens, thousands, or millions of us can hang out and talk about what's broken in society, it's harder to hide things and easier for even a motivated novice to spread a message and to garner support. Take Regina Holliday, 37, a Washington, D.C.-based artist and mother of two. In March 2009, when her husband, Fred, then 36, was diagnosed with Stage IV kidney cancer, Holliday was rarely online. But Facebook seemed like the easiest way to update friends and family.
Having a Facebook page is like hosting a cocktail party for all the people you've ever known. There's your client in one corner, some guy you met on a vacation in Mexico in another, various family members scattered throughout the room, and the members of your book club hanging out at the punch bowl. When you "talk" (post), they're all in earshot. Your guests might then repeat the story at their cocktail parties—and so on and so on. Some users aren't thrilled about this possibility, and prefer to keep the various arenas of their lives separate. But one woman's gossip is another woman's gold: Facebook worked for Regina Holliday.
"I went from 46 friends to hundreds—my friends' friends, people in the community. Because I was posting to a pretty wide audience, I held back at first. Finally, I started talking about the screw-ups." A botched diagnosis was followed by inconsistent and uncaring treatment, and, worst of all, a refusal to disclose information about her husband's rapidly deteriorating condition. At first, Fred worried that his wife's complaints would "make it worse," but in his final weeks, he told her, "Go get 'em, honey." Four days after his untimely and horrific death in June, Holliday poured her grief and rage onto a concrete wall in the CVS parking lot on Connecticut Avenue. It took her 70 days to complete a 25-by-50-foot, Guernica-like painting that captured her family's tragedy. Its title—73 Cents—refers to the per-page cost of obtaining her late husband's medical records.