Anonymity and Social Media

(presented at 2018 Southwest Regional A.A. Service Assembly in  Branson, MO)
Good morning, SWRAASA!

My name is Martha, and I’m an alcoholic. It’s a privilege and an honor to serve Alcoholics Anonymous as the Cooperation with the Professional Community Committee Chair in Area 10, Colorado, and I’m grateful to be here this weekend.

This morning, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite topics in present-day AA: anonymity and its relation to social media. I’d like to start by saying that I don’t believe I have anything novel to suggest on the subject; much has already been said, and far more eloquently than I could say it, about this nuanced balance we are attempting to achieve between practicing our traditions, and leveraging an incredibly far-reaching means of communication to be more helpful to our still-suffering fellows. I’ve never had an original thought in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I don’t intend to start now.

I first want to acknowledge something I’ve noticed about my participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, and my practice with our twelve traditions. I’m fortunate to say that, much of the time, you’ll find me at my personal best when I show up in A.A.

On my better days, I attend my home group and other meetings consistently prepared to share a message of hope, with depth and weight, rooted in a step-based, God-based solution – a message about being able to live a life in which I can be comfortable sober and attain neutrality to alcohol (unthinkable for someone like me), in spite of my circumstances.

On my better days, I’m mindful that my primary purpose now, being on borrowed time and spared many years of alcoholic torture, is to simply be a conduit – a messenger with a solution that worked for me.

On my better days, I’m reminded again and again that the traditions are for ME to adopt as guiding spiritual principles in my life, and put into personal practice, with help from a God of my understanding.

And yet, you won’t always find me at my best in A.A. In my less spiritually-fit moments, I’ll storm into a group conscience hellbent on telling you why I’m doing everything right, unwilling to see where I might be wrong; at my worst, I’ll forget that I don’t just go to meetings for my own personal benefit anymore; at my worst, I use the traditions as a weapon to attempt to get my way; at my worst, I lack humility, I think I have all the answers, and I forget that without God and without You, I stay drunk.

And still, on those days, God is there.

And still I have found unity within A.A.

And so it goes with my participation on social media. When I’m at my best, social media serves as a prominent and effective form of communication. It helps me remain connected with family and friends across the country. It helps them know what’s going on in my life, it helps me disseminate useful information to others. At my best, I am able to represent my experience and the reality of my life in a way that’s honest, and genuine, and humble. At my best, social media helps me share in the joys and challenges in the lives of many who are close to me, in a way that might not be possible in its absence. At my best, I can approach it with a sense of balance and a healthy understanding of its limitations, social media has been immensely helpful in this way.

And yet, you will not always find me at my best on social media. At my worst, social media has likely alienated or discomforted a lot of people in my life, in an alarmingly short amount of time. Let us not forget all that drunk facebook posting…

But even in sobriety, I’ve had many not-so-great moments on the internet. At my worst, I’ve intentionally misrepresented myself to appear differently than I do in my day-to-day life; I’ve instigated conflicts, and taken things out of context; I’ve used social media as a tool to show “how freaking great I am.” In many ways, my participation on social media has, again on my more challenging days, been fraught with ego.

And still, there was God. And still there was unity to be found.

So, if I extrapolate my experience, this is what we might expect, both within A.A., and on social media, from one another: sometimes we’re at our best, sometimes we’re not. And there’s God and unity available to us as a collective fellowship in both instances.

So with that in mind, I invite you to consider that we’ll typically find, in a discussion like this one, are two basic camps who feel (perhaps incorrectly) that they are on opposing sides of this matter: members who are heavily active on social media and feel strongly that Alcoholics Anonymous ought to be represented widely, but perhaps don’t have much experience with the traditions; and members who are well-versed in traditions, but perhaps view social media and a strong A.A. web-presence with skepticism.

Those in the former camp will often be eager and active on social media, in a way that involves a A.A. But these are often those dashing headlong into action that has a real potential for traditions conflicts, without considering the possible ramifications on Alcoholics Anonymous, and our public image.

Those in the latter are apt to see some of this problematic behavior, and immediately dismiss any opportunity for an A.A. presence on social media as innately conflicting with our 11th tradition, 12th tradition, our 6th, our 1st .

But here’s the problem with that. Proponents on either side of this discussion are failing, on both sides, to exhibit integral leadership. We have much to teach one another, and much to learn as individuals, if only we’re willing to broach this discussion in the first place.

Traditions enthusiasts (In Colorado, we like to call ourselves nerds, but I don’t know if that’s appropriate here). Social media gurus. You probably have some of the questions, and some of the answers. Talk to each other. See if there’s a way that we can somehow try to educate one another on the many facets of this thing. Lead each other.

What do statements like “in such a way as to implicate A.A.” or “actual or implied affiliation” mean? What constitutes the public level when we talk about personal anonymity? How does that relate to the internet? Are we practicing the genuine humility suggested in the spiritual principle of anonymity when we pat ourselves on the back online for how sober we are? What are privacy settings, and how can they prevent my presence on social media from being at the “public level?” What are the limitations with that? What are the myriad iterations and implications of anonymity breaks online, in various forums? Why is it so difficult for the suffering alcoholic to find information about A.A. online, and what are some potential solutions for that?

We’ve asked ourselves harder questions than these as a fellowship. We’ve navigated uncharted waters before, and we’ve had faith that God would see us through.

You know, in many ways, I desperately wish that the title of this discussion today had been “Our Primary Purpose and Social Media.” The truth is, our fifth tradition is the reason this discussion is deeply meaningful to me. In the foreword to the 1955 second edition of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, it was suggested that “in all probability, we shall never be able to touch more than a fair fraction of the alcohol problem, in all its ramifications.” This is still abundantly true today, and to a much greater degree should we, as a fellowship, remain unwilling to leverage perhaps the most powerful and wide-reaching communication tool in the world.

I’ve been on some dodgy twelfth step calls. I’ve had doors slammed in my face in seedy hotels.

I’ve sat in living rooms with drunks drinking right in front of me, surrounded by bottles.

Many people in this room will have very similar stories. I have not hesitated for an instant to go to any of these places. I’ve been thoughtful about making safe choices — I bring a partner, I bring God, I tell someone where I’m going. But I go.

This same sort of opportunity to reach the alcoholic who still suffers, and is actively looking for help, is available to us in various ways through social media — a place that looks uninviting, fraught with trouble and distasteful conditions. And yet, if we let fear of misuse deter us from exploring these possibilities, are we not doing a disservice to the alcoholic who still stumbles in the darkness?

The potential utility in facilitating 12th step work by leveraging social media is made abundantly clear in a motion that was passed this year at the 68th general service conference. This year, the General Service Conference approved the creation of a LinkedIn page for the Cooperation with the Professional Community desk at GSO.

LinkedIn if you’re unfamiliar, is a social media platform geared toward professionals. You see, if you search “Alcoholics Anonymous” on LinkedIn right now, you’ll see a wide variety of results returned. Local central offices and Intergroups, private practice addiction counselors–if you were a professional attempting to include Alcoholics Anonymous into your network, these results were, perhaps…confusing.

And people DO search for us. And they ARE confused. Doctors, lawyers, clergy, press, people who are our able friends and advocates–they tried to find us, and struggled to do so. Because we weren’t there.

Finally, in 2018, our fellowship has embraced the utility in facilitating 12th step work through social media.

Is this not the purpose of so much of the work we do here in our service structure? To facilitate 12th step work? To ensure that people can find us? To see that our friends can recommend us, because they know who we are and how to refer the afflicted to us?

This indicates that we’re willing to have this conversation, we are willing to make change (albeit slowly). I friend of mine in A.A., and past delegate from Area 10, once told me that a knee-jerk reaction in Alcoholics Anonymous takes two years. Which sounds about right. Clearly, this is moving much, much slower than at a knee-jerk pace. But it’s happening.

How, then, shall we proceed?

Like all changes in A.A., we start by having discussions; by educating ourselves and each other; by gathering facts; by considering all of the various impacts that our choices might have upon others, and upon our fellowship as a whole. But we also continue take action. Understanding the nature of the potential problems inherent in social media presence for A.A. without some sort of action won’t help, anymore than it helped me to know that I couldn’t control my drinking.

Technology changes much too quickly for that. Know that we WILL make mistakes. You will find us at our best, and at our worst. But God will be there. And the unity of Alcoholics Anonymous will still be there.

So I’ll leave you with this, from page 102 in our Big Book:

“Your job now is to be at a place where you may be of maximum helpfulness to others, so never hesitate to go anywhere if you can be helpful. You should not hesitate to visit the most sordid spot on earth on such an errand. Keep on the firing line of life with these motives, and God will keep you unharmed.”

And God will keep US unharmed.