Jim Gilliam Believes the Internet Can Save Us From Ourselves
Jim Gilliam tells how the Internet saved his life — literally! — and how unprecedented connectivity is shifting the global community in chaotic, exciting ways.
Jim Gilliam is the founder and CEO of NationBuilder, and author of the recently published book, The Internet Is My Religion. Previously, he co-founded Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, building a non-profit grassroots media powerhouse of a million members. In the late 90's, he launched Business.com as its Chief Technology Officer, and worked at Lycos, one of the first internet search engines. His speech at the Personal Democracy Forum in June 2011 has been viewed over 500,000 times and called "the best video on the internet."
Jim Gilliam: So I grew up a Christian fundamentalist, but simultaneously this whole like online thing was happening and I was just really entranced and sucked into it as a teenager. And over the course of the years I had all kinds of medical problems the result of which was I needed someone else’s bone marrow and someone else’s lungs in order to stay alive. So quite literally people connected are like in my body and that was a pretty major thing for me. Trying to understand what that meant, understanding what that meant for my faith and the spirituality around it.
So I started a whole inquiry of what does this mean for my life. Like what is possible when all of humanity is connected? What does it mean for what I’m supposed to do while I’m here? All the things that religion traditionally provides for folks I found that I had this new faith. And new faith and it connected to humanity, but didn’t know what that necessarily meant for what the purpose of my life was. And what I came to understand is that there is something unique and special about every single person. There’s something inside of them that they are meant to create. And it could be really hard to figure out what that is, but when you do and you have the guts and the determination to actually make it happen, it’s the most extraordinary thing any human can do. And if everyone is doing that, if everyone is fully unlocking all of that potential inside of them, then that becomes God. That is how we can be the greatest God we can be. And that’s what’s guided my life since then. And I wanted to share it with folks.
I think one of the big challenges that we face as humans is how to make connected humans be greater than the sum of their parts. It’s — you can see it in like the inefficiencies that emerge even in sort of large organizations. Bureaucracy, government. Like as people come together, it frequently leads to less things getting done rather than more things getting done. And so we haven’t figured out how all of that works but that is the great challenge. That is what we should all strive for. And we’re starting to see new models emerge online where they operate — where groups of people operate in a more collaborative, but also competitive kind of way. Open source software is a great example of this, where the coordination costs have come down dramatically. Like I don’t have to ask for somebody’s permission to be able to fork somebody’s code and make my own version of it. Whereas traditionally collaboration requires a bunch of people to get into a room and just all work things out. And that doesn’t work when it’s a thousand or a million or 10 million people. So the great challenge for us is to figure out what are the ways in which very, very large groups of people can accomplish things that were never possible before.
Much of what we call a sharing economy or even the on demand economy — you know Airbnb and Kickstarter and these things — really what that is, is that communities accomplishing things that just weren’t possible before. And the more that we can figure that out, the more that we can scale that, the more successful, the more impact it will have — as individuals, as leaders, but also as humans.
What’s different and unique about my faith is that all of us have the opportunity to impact the kind of God we are. God is not something that’s out there. That just is. It is all of us together. And so what we do and what we contribute to it impacts how we behave. There’s a huge amount of bad behavior online. There’s trolls. Even outrage culture where something gets frequently misinterpreted, a tweet, and everybody gets extremely upset about it and can ruin someone’s life in a span of 10 or 15 minutes. It’s like utterly staggering what that power is and it’s almost like an adolescent trying to understand the immense power that they now have and we haven’t figured out what that really means for us yet and how to use it responsibly. With great power comes great responsibility. And like what does that look like for all of humanity connected?
Scott Peck wrote a book a few decades ago it was called The Road Less Traveled. And he wrote another book called The Different Drum. In it he talks about the stages of community. There are four stages. The first stage is what he calls pseudo community. And the best way to describe this is you know how when you go to a dinner party, everybody’s pretty polite to each other, really nice, and nobody really talks about politics or religion because that would get sort of too intense and too crazy. And then everybody goes home afterwards with their significant other like in the car. And they basically sort of talk dirt about everybody else that was at the dinner party. That’s pseudo community and that is how 99.9 percent of the entire world works. The second stage of community is chaos. So this is what happens when people start getting real. They start saying the actual things, what they’re actually thinking and stuff can get really real really fast. It can get crazy. It can be chaos. It’s called chaos.
And then there are two ways out of chaos. The first is you organize your way out of it. You create rules and systems and processes to work around the conflict so that everybody can feel more comfortable again. And this again is how the vast majority of the world works. The other way out is to empty. And what that means is you let go of all of your preconceived ideas of who somebody else should be. You stop trying to fix somebody else to make them more like you and you start to accept people for who they are. If you’re able to do that — if the community is able to do that, there’s the possibility to sort of reach the fourth stage, which is true community. Some people will call this a learning community. And reaching that level is utterly extraordinary. People can accomplish things together. There’s a cohesiveness and a shared sense of purpose that is extraordinary.
What I believe is happening as everyone is getting more and more connected, Twitter being a really good example is because it’s such a public square, is that we’re in chaos. We’re starting to actually say the real things to each other. That’s why things like gay marriage have moved so quickly. That’s why some of these cultural issues that have sort of sat under the surface for so long are starting to bubble up and get addressed. That’s what outrage culture is about. People are starting to experience each other in different ways. No, this is not okay. That’s not okay. And they’re trying to say it from the safety of their chairs or their phones to people online. It’s utter chaos. So there’s a lot of folks out there that are trying to fix people. There’s a lot of that happening. But if we can get to the point where we can start accepting each other and I don’t think it’s an accident that all of the efforts around transgender folks and how that’s suddenly — it feels like it’s suddenly like emerged into the culture it’s because fundamentally if we can learn to start accepting people for who they are, that’s how we can become ones with massive global community. A community made up of millions and millions of other communities. And that’s our great challenge as humans. I like to think a lot about sort of if we are as individual communities and sort of like nested structures of communities, how can we then accomplish things that we couldn’t have done before? But that’s what I think is happening. I think it’s really exciting. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be really, really painful. Thankfully it is a war of words frequently and less a war of bloodshed. But that’s where I think we’re on.
Who would have figured that the outrage culture that dictates such a huge portion of Internet activity is merely one step along a longer path toward global harmony? In this keen video interview, NationBuilder CEO Jim Gilliam tells how the Internet is shifting the global community in chaotic, exciting ways. He explains how the Internet became his religion, where it's taking us as a society, and how a face-off with cancer opened his eyes to a whole new worldview.
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