If you have been online for a while you may recall when Liz shared early morning lake view sunrise pictures with the world on social media. For more days than I can count, my Vancouver day started with a Chicago lake sunrise. Sometimes there was a short chat on Twitter with Liz too. Appreciating Liz’s sunrises somehow made things right in my world. And by watching the way she interacted with others, I learned a great deal about building community in the online world.
And then one day there were no more Chicago sunrise pictures. No lake. And no Liz. Just a suddenly silent social stream. For days. Weeks. And eventually months. The sun may have still been rising — but it certainly wasn’t rising in quite the same way anymore.
In the case of Liz — after many missed sunrises — I decided to act. For me – anything less just would not have felt right. So I took the old fashioned approach. I wrote Liz a letter and sent it in the mail. That’s right — I headed down to the post office and put something in the mailbox. That letter reached Liz at a time when social was no longer part of her world. In fact, it reached her as she was quietly beginning Cancer treatment. It was my way of showing up for her. And she felt it.
Liz’s Experience of Falling Offline
“What did it feel like to suddenly step back from the online space?” I asked Liz as we were texting back and forth a few weeks ago. It was late in the evening, two years post her final Cancer treatment. I was in a hammock out on my back deck. Liz was in her condo — overlooking the lake of sunrises.
“I was thinking about that today.” she texted back, “I guess it was nothing like I imagined. I got so very sick so very fast. I had to give up my whole online life and parts of what had defined me all my life. At first I was too sick to care.”
As I read her words, I began thinking about that time too. Lots of people had noticed she was suddenly missing from the social space. And a great many were concerned. There was a flurry of backchannel conversations — to say the least.
“Too sick to care.” — those words stood out the most to me as I read through Liz’s reply. I knew Liz had been sick…but imagining her not caring told me a whole lot more than I had ever really understood. As long as I have know Liz, she has always cared. Not having the energy to care told me just how sick she must have been.
Liz went on to to tell me about how the online community began coming back to her mind as she slowly regained her strength after her treatment.
“It started as moments. I’d dream about someone offering me the support and friendship I’d known before I got sick. Once I even wrote a dear friend an email about how a dream of his friendship gave me hope. But mostly such moments were fleeting.” she wrote. “Twitter didn’t stay part of my life very long. And you’d be surprised how many people I knew who didn’t notice I was gone.”
I was surprised by that. Everyone I knew had noticed that Liz was gone — but I guess the online world is a pretty big place. I told her about someone once telling me how they were frustrated that she had not shared more online about her illness. This person had felt strongly that many would have done more — if they had known more.
“Sometimes in life and in business you have to be selfish, knowing that you’ll lose something in that act, but also knowing there’s not enough energy to do otherwise.” Liz wrote. “I couldn’t eat because my mouth and throat were covered with sores. I had NO voice — could not be heard even if I was calling for help. Typing was out of the question. I guess I hoped for compassion knowing I could do nothing else.”
Liz on Relationships
Liz went on to explain.
“I’ve always been a person who prefers to interact with people one-to-one and I was a paid writer over a decade before there was an Internet. I think that is why I took so well to interacting online — because people knew I was really talking to one person at a time. To my surprise online they were talking back.”
“My experience is that when we’re young we try to fit in — in the family, the neighborhood, at school, and as we grow up our universe gets larger so it becomes easier to find the folks with whom we fit. The beauty of the Internet is that it is the ultimate universe. You can find folks like you there for sure.”
“But relationships need care and nurturing and sometimes that’s easier to do when we’re in the same room and engaging all of our senses.”
Online or Off It’s about Showing up
Liz said that when she traveled for business, she learned (and still believes very strongly) that you had to show up in person or you invite room for doubt. “A sort of we versus them thinking creeps in.” Liz continued texting.“Falling offline to be sick brought some of that. And the relationships that remain the strongest are those in which people didn’t just expect me to show up without showing up themselves.”
In Liz’s case, many of the people who chose to show up were the very same people who later worked together to bring the first GeniusShared retreat to life last year in Chicago. And those same people are the ones that we now consider to be core members of the GeniusShared community. They continue to show up in ways that never cease to amaze us.
There are so many ways to show up for others. Social provides endless opportunities to reach out, to connect and to build relationships. In many ways, virtually anything is possible — including watching the sun rise over a lake in Chicago — all the way from Vancouver.
But — it’s about so much more than that too. Showing up is very much about the choice you make when people who matter to you suddenly fall offline. It’s all about what you do next. So listen to your inner voice – it knows exactly what you need to do.
What Do You Do When Others Fall Offline
People are funny — many don’t know what to do when someone disappears from the online space. When a sudden social silence sets in, it can be a worry. Especially when that silence comes from someone you have been building an online relationship with. In many ways, it’s as if the internet is still trying to figure out the cultural norm for moments such as this.
Every situation is different. Over the years I have seen many people fall offline – for days, weeks and even more. I have seen people come and go from the social space. Every time silence emerges I have consciously made a choice about how I responded. From these experiences I can say that my greatest learning has been this —
Most Importantly Listen to Your Inner Voice
You must always listen to your inner voice — not to what other voices are saying. Quite simply — you do what YOU think is right. And if your gut is telling you to reach out — then you do it. Without hesitation or question. You ignore the rest of the noise that surrounds you.
To me, it’s the difference between stopping to offer help at the scene of an accident vs. rubber necking as you drive by ever so slowly. If you choose to stop and help — you are making a clear choice to be there. To show up fully.
And believe me — acting can change everything in your world — and in the world of the person you choose to show up for too.
Jane Boyd is a Partner in GeniusShared. She is also the CEO of 45 Conversations Media & Education Ltd, a Canadian education and training company based just outside of Vancouver Canada. She works with educators, business, community and government in the areas of early learning, work-life, community development and employee engagement.