Making a Connection
Taryn Ward
Taryn Ward • Sep 09

Making a Connection

by Taryn Ward

In the months before the pandemic, I was reading a lot of Emmanuel Levinas (and Claire Katz on Levinas) and thinking about the nature of connection. Sometimes in life, things move in circles, and I found myself angling back toward my philosophy roots, with legal training and some life experience in my pockets, to examine connection. Specifically, I started contemplating what it means for, and how it informs, our ethical obligations.  

I discussed with a friend - over her delicious bolognese one Sunday afternoon - the delta between how people treat each other when they're face-to-face and how people treat each other when they're not. More importantly, we considered how we think about each other when we're face-to-face and how we think about each other when we're not. We spoke at length about what it takes for a face-to-face encounter to overcome prejudgments and how people reconcile specific experiences with individual people and larger prejudices. In other words, what level of connection is required to overcome preconceptions about who or what someone is and once overcome, under what circumstances does that changed understanding extend beyond that individual to a larger (or even an entire) group?

This conversation led to more questions than answers: Why do some people have seemingly unlimited understanding and care for people they've never met, but little patience for people they know personally? Why are some people the opposite? How do we answer these questions without resorting to prejudgments and assumptions on our own part? What does it mean to connect with someone, really, and how do we measure it? How do we even know it's happened? Does it grow, does it fade, does it depend? If the latter, on what? 

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My as of yet untested hypothesis was that different types of encounters carry different levels of potential. A phone call with a stranger, whom I'm unlikely to ever meet, let's take one of Comcast's infamously delightful customer service agents as an example, carries very little potential for connection and, as a result, very little potential to alter my existing belief system and therefore very little potential to transform.  There are a number of factors that are important here of course, but one of them is the lack of any face-to-face component. In fact, I developed a fairly complex hierarchy (and for those who know me, yes, there was a spreadsheet involved), comparing various factors that might limit or enhance the potential for meaningful connection.  

Two things became obvious fairly quickly. 

First, there is no substitute for one-on-one, face-to-face, low pressure, unhurried interaction. The advancement of video conferencing technology has been phenomenal, especially for those of us who live far away from family and friends, and a lifeline during the pandemic. Yet, it's not the same. Whether you believe this is the result of some biological reality (we're missing multiple components of a sensory experience and others are necessarily altered) or some larger spiritual reality (our oneness takes our full attention to appreciate) is up for debate, but there's something fundamental about who we are as humans that prevents us accepting any meaningful substitute for this experience.  

Second, one-on-one, face-to-face, low pressure, unhurried interaction is a potentiality, not a guarantee of connection or transformation. Connection requires vulnerability and vulnerability requires at least some likelihood of safety and security. This can change as an encounter unfolds, but if either or both parties feel unsafe, the potential for connection drops to zero until that safety is reestablished.  

I was writing about all of this, reflecting on my own daily face-to-face encounters, when I had a news alert about the first Covid cases in China. It all felt very far away then, and all of a sudden very not far away. It was only in the weeks and months that followed, after we all were infected with Covid and after we finished the first round of virtual school, that I started to think about connection again.  

We were still relatively new expats when Covid began, so we found ourselves forming meaningful virtual relationships that had only been in their infancy before the pandemic began. We also found ourselves leaning heavily on relationships back in the U.S. And then virtual school started.

That was some of the context for when we first started thinking about Bright, or "The Connection Ward," as the project was known in its earliest days. More than anything, it was the potential for creating a genuine online connection that captured our attention.  Identifying what was wrong with existing social media companies was easy and required little imagination. Sorting through that very long list, while holding space for what it could be, then building something tangible that makes that potential a reality was, and is, the real challenge.

We wanted to build something that would facilitate making new connections and foster existing connections...

We wanted to build something that would facilitate making new connections and foster existing connections;  more than that, we wanted to build something that wouldn't benefit from dismantling or destroying existing connections, or prevent them from developing. The starting point for all of that could only be trust. Given how social media platforms currently behave, that trust would need to be earned.  We set out to find the places where trust was absent from the current structures, yes, but also focused on the positive work, on figuring out how to build relationships and demonstrate that we mean what we say.

There were a few obvious answers: don't sell data, don't use sneaky or misleading language, don't pretend that we've solved every problem all at once. Those ideas were the low-hanging fruit of "don't lie to people" and "don't hide the truth". The more important lessons were about building trust into every aspect of what we do, and accountability, even if it resulted in difficult choices. We knew that advertising models led to mass surveillance, so we've rejected ads outright, in favour of a subscription model. We knew that bots promote the majority of spam and fake news online, so we curated our onboarding process around keeping bots out. We knew that social media doesn't always feel like a welcoming place - especially for people who are already marginalised in everyday life - so we build accessibility and inclusion directly into the design of the app.

We knew that social media doesn't always feel like a welcoming place - especially for people who are already marginalised in everyday life - so we build accessibility and inclusion directly into the design of the app.

The point is that these may not be things that you see right away, but they're there to be discovered. Think of it as the reverse of the usual social media experience: the more you dig into Bright, the more you see how much thought, effort, and care goes into making it something truly different. That's the way to build trust, by giving our Members the chance to realise that, underneath the surface, we really do mean what we say. And when trust is the foundation and baseline of the community, it's so much easier for people to build connections with one another. Ultimately, the work of creating connection is just that: work. It takes attention and intention to do it, but the results are so clear, and the difference is too. We can't wait for you to experience that change, become part of our community, and forge your own connections.

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