Cultivating Meaningful Digital Space
Jasmine Stammes, Former User Experience Researcher
As the months draw on it is important for us to talk about how to adjust and make meaning out of remote social lives. Here are some tips on how to cultivate meaningful digital space.
As we all scramble to adjust to a mostly remote lifestyle in the wake of COVID-19, there is a collective grief over the loss of gathering outside of our front doors. There has been a lot of conversation about how to adjust to remote work. ‘How do we maintain productivity? How do we support people working with family? How do we adjust workplace culture in digital space?’
As the months draw on, it’s equally important to talk about how to adjust and make meaning out of remote social lives. This is particularly important for maintaining a sense of mental wellbeing. Even as states and countries begin the slow work of re-opening, it is clear that the next few months will continue to necessitate digital space as an important part of how we now must gather. So what constitutes as digital space? I like to think of digital space as the space created with the internet. It is the agglomeration of all the websites, apps and more we connect with on the daily. Digital space is not constrained to geography or definite boundaries.
In the last decade websites and apps have built the base of digital space that’s become critical to our lives. A 2017 study noted that 39% of heterosexual couples reported meeting their partners online, compared to 22% in 2009. In what would have been unheard of just 20 years ago, online dating has become the most common way for Americans to find romantic partners. Mundane parts of our lives have also been equally influenced, most of us now take for granted our use of google maps and other GPS systems to get us to unknown locations, we track our steps through digital counters, we regularly communicate using apps like facebook messenger or Whatsapp. Not to mention the endless ways we connect and broadcast using a myriad of social media platforms.
To cultivate meaningful digital lives we must transform our digital spaces into digital places.
Digital places are spaces we imbue with meaning. Places are spaces we cultivate with stories, emotion and attention. And now in this time of ‘physical distance’, places are where we can maintain and strengthen social bonds and community.
Digital spaces have limitations and constraints – they aren’t made to replace our restaurants, movie theaters and public parks. Physical connection, touch, and ambience cannot be replicated digitally exactly, and, frankly, do not need to be. To transform a digital space to a digital place, we must be cognizant of the weaknesses and rely on the strengths of digital mediums. And the strengths of digital mediums are that they allow us to connect with people we might have long lost contact with, they help us learn easily about worlds far and wide, and they allow us direct intimacy and spaces of safety.
Cultivating meaningful digital space is about recognizing how to see these spaces as places.
Now, more than ever, as we continue to find ways to gather digitally, it is important for us to re-map our digital spaces to be imbued with a sense of place.
Here are some of my tips on how you can do so.
Build out meaningful digital gatherings with loved ones.
Gatherings are integral to community wellbeing. We spend a large part of our lives gathering with people. New social restrictions have meant we need to bring these gatherings to digital platforms. Priya Parker, writer of the Art of Gathering, notes that the key to meaningful gatherings is focusing on the distinctiveness, purpose, and people you are gathering with.
Here at Viget where we have a culture of building deep connections with each other. And a mantra of “being a great teammate.” We have created new virtual gathering places that offer ways for us to spark connections.
Find digital spaces that connect with your cultural and identity markers.
A strong sense of place is often tied to our identities. But like in the real world, this can have a dark side – Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have all received public scrutiny for harboring a myriad of hate groups, but it continues to be an alarming problem. Twitter especially has been slow to remove white supremacist tweets and accounts.
But digital spaces have also long offered places of connection for marginalized communities. Take, for example, the cultural phenomena like ‘Black Twitter’. This network of culturally connected communicators uses the platform to draw attention to issues of concern like #BlackLivesMatter or connect over humorous cultural touchstones like #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies.
While some have used social media platforms to promote hate, for many, digital platforms have created pathways of safety, security, and connection.
This is not simply limited to identity markers like race or sexuality. From runners to vegans, connecting with like-experienced people from across the country and world fosters a sense of connectivity and intimacy online.
Be intentional about how you engage online.
In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport notes the importance of building an intentional digital practice. In the wake of COVID-19 many of us have lost our choice in how much time we spend online, as personal and work obligations have shifted to almost entirely digital space.
However, there is still much to be said about not losing our ability to be intentional. Building meaningful digital space requires careful practice.
There are a lot of mediums but you don’t have to be on it all. Choose your online activities the way you would a favorite hangout. Connect in online spaces that resonate with you.
By and large, it's important to find the mediums and the online activities that allow you to feel a sense of community. This can be forums, blogs, social media, virtual coffee dates. It doesn’t matter and you may have to try different platforms before you find one you like.
Over the course of the pandemic, I have found that Zoom has been a great way to connect with personal and professional contacts. I have, however, maintained my absence from all social media platforms with the exception of LinkedIn, in order to limit digital fatigue.
Cultivating your sense of place in digital space sometimes means saying no in order to be more present and in touch with the things you say yes to.
If your work is only engaging using Zoom, and you are experiencing zoom fatigue or generally video conferencing fatigue, think of ways to engage with family and friends through different digital mediums that still allow for meaningful connection.
Ultimately cultivating meaningful digital space, takes time and energy. However, we hope these tips help you take the first steps to making your digital interactions as meaningful as your physical ones.