Building A Community: How I Did It Using Technology & Social Media

In January of 2019, I was asked to deliver a keynote and be a part of the Buffalo Boss Babe’s speaker series and it was truly such an honor! The theme of the panel that month was community, so I decided to touch on how technology & social media has shaped not only my community but quite possibly communities worldwide.

How has technology changed the way you live your life? I admit that it’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t able to just reach into my pocket, take out my phone and Google the answer to almost any question imaginable. Companies like Uber sent the taxi industry into a frenzy and Airbnb now has 4 million listings worldwide which is more listings than the top 5 hotel brands combined – all through the use of technology.

But now, the millennial generation is accused of being “easily sidetracked by technology” and that it results in a lack of social skills. No joke, I found an article that was titled “Are Millennials Socially Impaired or Just Rude?” (which – l o l ). As a millennial myself these accusations really bothered me, but instead of getting defensive I decided to ask myself “Why does this upset you?” in order to try and get to the root of it all. What I learned is that I have a deep personal connection to this, what I would consider, false narrative.

Growing up I was always a pretty social kid. Ask either of my parents and they can confirm that multiple teachers wrote in the feedback section of my report cards saying, “Does well, but needs to spend less time socializing and focus more on her work.” I think social butterfly would’ve been putting it lightly, I was more of a social Tasmanian Devil

Fast forward nine years later and I found myself starting a career in San Diego and Boston doing digital and social media marketing which at the time was still a newly emerging industry. I was employed by PR agencies working closely with clients to understand their brand and unique voice in order to create and source content for their social media platforms and most importantly, socialize and build relationships with their customers through the monitoring of their platforms. Yup, I had a career and was getting paid to do exactly what I was advised to do less of when I was younger.

But after five years of agency life where I socialized not only in my work but with my peers daily in the office, I found myself moving back to Buffalo and transitioning into freelance work which meant working from home. Being by myself was not the easiest thing for me at first. I mean, the most riveting office gossip I’ve heard lately is that “Katharine still hasn’t washed the bowl she left in the sink from lunch yesterday….”

So as someone who thrived being around people and in group settings, I was presented with a new challenge. I realized what this new business opportunity lacked for me was the built-in community that a traditional office environment provides. It was important to me to figure out how to maintain a sense of community in my life.

The textbook definition of community is a group of people living in the same place that have a particular characteristic in common. But at this point in time, the people who I identified as my community were either a 7-hour drive East or 3-time zones West. And yet, I still found myself being supported by them. I was staying connected via group text messaging, catching up over FaceTime or seeing photos of my friends most recent life updates on my Instagram feed. That is when it hit me – technology is literally shattering the textbook definition of community. No longer do we have to live in the same place to feel connected or find support because technology has provided the new-found capability to not be limited by our geographic location.

As I mentioned earlier, there have been many critiques made that the millennial generation lacks social skills or is destroying what some would consider classic community norms. On the contrary, I think what we’ve done is created an opportunity to use the rules and traditions of social etiquette our parents taught us and build upon it by applying it to a digital landscape and connect with an even wider network of those who share similar interests. For example, I love traveling and increasing my supply of house plants so I frequently browse Instagram photos that use the hashtag #sheisnotlost or #plantmom. I leave comments on photos taken by people who are sometimes half a world away and end up having at length discussions with them. In Drake’s words, “What a time to be alive.” 

However, if there is one point I’d like to emphasize in all of this it’s that our mobile devices and technology are simply tools and it’s my belief that the social media platforms are not where the community truly exists. Community exists within the relationships we have with the people on the other side of our devices. It’s important to invest time in developing those relationships because when you find more reasons to care about someone, that’s when a community starts to take root and blossom.

So, while it’s cool to connect with a person half a world away, I discovered it was equally cool as someone who grew up in the Southtowns of Buffalo to now connect with someone who grew up in the Northtowns through a popular local hashtag like #riseBflo or #BuffaloBossBabes. Instagram might’ve facilitated the connection or conversation, but I actively try to find a reasons to bring my online community offline as often as possible even if it’s through something as simple as a coffee meet-up. Slowly yet surely, I began to connect with local people online, build relationships in person, and form a new community for myself here in Buffalo just as any previous generation would’ve done. 

Let me try to tie this all up with an anecdote my father shared with me— He told me about a trip he had made recently to the Galleria Mall where he came across a group of young men that were clearly together but were all individually on their phones. Curious, my Dad decided to observe them for a bit to see if they would interact with one another. A few minutes goes by and nothing has changed and my father said he walked away concluding (in his exact words) “this is a disaster and things are going to a hell in a hand basket.” However, I’ve been teaching him more about social media and my approach to it in my line of work. He expressed how I was able to shift his perspective saying – “Maybe, right under my nose, what I couldn’t see was that in their own way, those young men were working on developing their own community. It was just different than what I’ve been used to.”

What I’ve been able to take away from all of this is that technology has given me an opportunity to disrupt the old definition of community in a positive way if I so choose. I can take the traditional principals of community building and social skills that my parents raised me in and apply it to the world I am now faced with. What I hope to share and encourage you all to do is not miss out on this opportunity. You have the capability to cultivate new and specific communities but on a much larger scale – whether it’s the city of Buffalo, the state of New York or worldwide! If you choose to accept this new definition of community, it is my belief that there is no limit to the positive impact it can have on your life and others.