The indoor stage at The AA Southern National Convention 2017.

AA, 12-step conventions, and anonymity in the digital age

A convention of the proudly unconventional.

This past weekend I attended The AA Southern National Convention with Al-Anon & Alateen participation.

I was there as a proud Al-Anon Member. And the whole thing left me with a lot to reflect upon.

(For those who don’t know, Al-Anon is a fellowship for those affected by other people’s drinking. Alateen is Al-Anon for teenagers).

It was my first 12-Step Recovery convention, and it proved unique and memorable for many reasons.

The music sounds better with you (and you, and you…).

A sign for an Al-Anon meeting at the AA Southern Convention 2017.
A sign for an Al-Anon meeting at the AA Southern Convention 2017.

For starters, I sat in a room, listening to people share their journey from hardship. And then a band outside started merrily played Irish folk music! It was a surreal, juxtaposing, and yet bizarrely joyous experience. Certainly not something you get every meeting.

(Either that, or I’ve been attending the wrong meetings!).

As for the rest of the convention… well, I am of course bound by anonymity. But there are few things I can talk about here.

Anonymity in the Digital Age.

Chief amongst them is anonymity itself. More specifically, what anonymity means in the modern landscape of apps, always-on connections and commodified social sharing.

This subject was the theme of the entire conference, and people had many interesting discussions on the topic. Anonymity is, after all, the spiritual foundation of all 12-Step Recovery fellowships.

Of course, you don’t need to have been at the convention to know that social media poses a sizeable challenge to anonymity for both people and organisations. Particularly the more ubiquitous channels, like Twitter and Facebook.

So just what does it mean to have anonymity in the digital age? Is it possible – or even realistic at all?

It’s an issue worth further investigation.

Staying ‘safe’ on social media.

My lanyard from The AA Southern Convention 2017
This is shareable… right?

12-Step membership operates on a strictly first name basis (as you can see from my convention lanyard). But many are the times I’ve taken someone’s number and they’ve popped up in my Facebook feed, replete with surname, under the heading “People You May Know.” How do you respond to that?

And what about those who take it upon themselves to break their own anonymity? If you see a recovery friend post a picture of their sobriety chip, or share a link to recovery articles about powerlessness. What then?

More to the point… how do you start to feel about these people? Are you wary they might tag you? Do you feel simply being connected to them outs you too by association? Do they feel ‘safe’ to you as far as keeping your anonymity goes?

Big questions. No easy answers.

The way forwards on Facebook and co.

In fact, it’s clear the twelve-step movement at large – not just Alcoholics Anonymous – is struggling to get its head around it. Just what is the right way forwards in the digital world with regards to anonymity?

Go too gung-ho on Twitter, for instance, and these organisations could risk scaring and alienating existing members. Let alone corrupting the very foundations they’re built upon.

Be too head-in-the-sand, however, and they risk not being able to attract the next-generation. Millennials who develop addictive-compulsive problems, might never get the help they need. Simply because talking on the phone is something they aren’t used to.

I don’t have a silver-bullet solution (no one does). But I would like to see 12 step fellowships embrace social sharing platforms in a cautious, respectful and boundaried manner.

I do think there’s a way to do that which is in the best interests of all concerned. After all, fellowships like these are inclined to carry the message of recovery to those still suffering.

Responsibility should be shared.

Side view of the stage at AA Southern Convention 2017. One of the workshops: anonymity in the digital age.
Disclaimer: No one’s anonymity was harmed in the taking of this picture. I hope.

But I also feel members – particularly those with a good measure of recovery – have a distinct responsibility, too.

It isn’t solely up to AA and the like to set the agenda. Leaders in these fellowships are but trusted servants – they do not govern. So if there is enough call from members to move with the times, that leadership will indeed have to move in that direction.

If they do, however, members cannot start the finger pointing. Recovery programmes can publish sharing guidelines until they’re blue in the proverbial face, but it is up to individuals to respect people’s anonymity.

Likewise, if a person chooses to break their anonymity on social media or elsewhere – that is their right, too. If it makes that person feel unsafe… well, being connected to them on social media, or not, is a choice you make for yourself.

It’s up to all of us where we place our boundaries, how we set them, and how we respond when someone else crosses them.

At the end of the day, the only person any of us can really control is ourselves.

The conversation has just started.

One thing is for sure, however: the social media conversation isn’t going to go away for the 12 Step recovery world. The sooner someone takes the lead with clear guidelines, and a mature-but-modern approach, the better.

Food for thought.

What does Anonymity in the Digital Age mean to you? Let me know (anonymously) in the comments below.

I had other observations that cropped up after the convention – specifically about Al-Anon’s traditions and the way they link to AA. But I’ll write those up in a separate post.

(EDIT: Here it is!)

Till then…

All the best,

Mark

 

Learn more:

To find out more about UK AA, Al-Anon and Alateen events in your area, visit the links below:
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