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Home » Being Human in a Digital Age: Joel Comm at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

Being Human in a Digital Age: Joel Comm at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)


I was 12 years old when my parents got divorced. It’s not an uncommon story, but like many kids I was left with a lot of pain, a lot of concern, a lot of loss. And not knowing how to deal with it, I did the best I could, and found healthy and unhealthy ways to manage it.

Of course, the unhealthy ways were pretty dysfunctional and that dysfunction led to a number of addictions in my life, and those addictions throughout the years have included workaholism, addiction to food, addiction to video games, addiction to drugs, addiction to pornography. And unfortunately, the dysfunction played forward into my relationships, and after 22 years of marriage, I contributed enough dysfunction to it that my wife left me. With all due respect to her, I take complete ownership for my failure in my half of the marriage, and then probably a good portion more. Had we had social media at the time, I don’t think this is something I would have shared publicly.

In fact, I’m certain I wouldn’t have, because there was great shame. There’s shame in the secrets we carry, and there’s power in the secrets. In fact, the power is found in keeping the secret in. So why do I share this with you? Because right now, this just got raw, this got vulnerable. If I weren’t clothed, I may as well be fully naked. You don’t have to picture it, it’s fine.

But there was a lot of shame, and it’s shame that we can all relate to. There’s a site out there called, and it’s a place where people can anonymously share their secrets and their pain without putting their name on it, by submitting postcards, some of them very beautifully done, and it gives them an opportunity to share their secrets. We hunger to be able to share.

[Where I work, I’m too lazy to walk to the bathroom so I pee in the kitchen sink]

I’ll let you see that one before I continue.

[I judge people based on how often the post useless crap on Facebook]

We’ve hungered a share, but we’re not very trusting, because we’ve been hurt before. We are so connected now, 72 billion people in the world, billions carrying smartphones, over 2 billion connected on social media, and we have so many friends now. We’re more connected than we’ve ever been. But are we really connected? We like to put up a good front, I’m all for a good selfie. And we love to share the positive things that are happening in our lives, don’t we?

But how do you know what’s real and what’s false? Elan Gale is a producer for the hit TV show “The Bachelor”, and Elan was traveling for Thanksgiving back home, and he was at 36,000 feet with Wi-Fi, and there was an altercation taking place just a few rows up from him. It turns out there was a woman in seat 7A who may as well have been the only person on the plane. She was being very demanding of the flight attendants, and so Elan thought, “I’m going to take matters into my own hands.” He wrote a note on a cocktail napkin, had it sent to the woman, she wasn’t happy about it, she sent one back, he sent another one to her, and before you know it, he’s blowing up Twitter to his 150,000 followers with these shenanigans and this story that was taking place. Of course, it went way beyond his followers and became real viral. You’d have thought for sure when they landed it was going to be a “Come on!” But that didn’t happen.

In fact, Elan confessed, after he landed, that none of it actually happened. He made it all up. He thought it would be entertaining for him while he was on his flight, and he thought it would be entertaining for his followers. How do we know what’s fake and what’s real? And in our own lives, we wear these masks, and we pretend, and now that we’ve got all this technology where we can really be whoever we want to be in social media and appear how we want to, how do we stay human in this digital age? How do we get to the truth? And who’s willing to stand up and say, “You know what? This is the truth, this is all I’ve got, warts and all, flaws and mistakes.” And there’s too many to count with this guy, I’ll say that! How do we get to the bottom? There’s a site on the web that has helped us move in that direction. It’s called

And I’ll tell you what, these dogs, whatever notorious deeds they’ve done, their owner writes it out, takes a picture and puts it up on the web. And I don’t know if the dogs of the world are learning from it but we as human beings have the opportunity to learn from it. For example, this is my friend Robert Scoble. You may know Robert from this picture that was taken in the shower while he was wearing Google Glass. He’s a leader in the tech field, he follows startups around and shares the latest technology; he’s a fantastic guy, a lot of fun to be around. Last November, Robert did something incredibly courageous. He shared on his Facebook page to his 600,000 or so followers, that as a child he was sexually molested. He went into great detail about what happened.

The social media community embraced him in such a powerful way, Robert was able to connect the dots between the abuse he sustained as a child, and the alcohol and drug dependencies he had currently as an adult. He got himself into an AA program right after this time, he’s been sober ever since, he’s doing fantastic. But what’s even more amazing is he told me that he gets so many messages and emails privately from people saying “Thank you!”, because his story was their story. And if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s our story as well. Honesty, authenticity, how do we do it with technology? Technology and social media are amoral, they’re neither good nor evil, they are tools, and it’s up to us to determine how we use them.

Here’s the thing, for the majority of us, actually all of us, we didn’t grow up with smartphones. As adults, they have been foisted on us in all the social media, and we’re going, “What do I do with this? Well, this is a hammer so everything’s a nail now!” We haven’t been taught from being raised how to use this right, and so as a result, we have people using social media in aggressive ways. Since you don’t have to face somebody face to face, you can say things online that you wouldn’t say if you were staring that person in the eye. I’m guilty of it, I’ve done it. Admit it, you have too.

And it’s OK, there’s no shame because we’re human, and we’re learning, but if we can’t get this right, how do we expect our children to get it right? We are the generation who’s gone before, and every time a finger is pointed, and we judge somebody harshly, for their political belief, “I can’t believe you voted for such and such, I would never support that, you must be stupid!” “I would never follow that religion or that faith because those people do this” “I can’t believe you eat that food, and that’s your exercise regimen” “What do you mean you liked Pitch Perfect 2? It was horrible!” Yes, I got some opinions. But when we judge others, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. We don’t know their story, we don’t know their motivation, we are all so different.

When we go home and look in the mirror, we know we got our own stuff. There’s none of us that don’t have our own stuff, and yet, we can be so hard on others. What if we were like Robert Scoble? And as I did at the beginning of my talk, we’re able to say, “You know what? I’m a human being. This is all I got, flaws, mistakes, my own experiences, my own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. What if we got real with one another? In appropriate forms, when intense stuff is happening right now.

But letting the secret go free, because when you do, you can impact so many other lives. See, when kids are judged, and their name called, intuitively, they have a textbook answer that they reply with, and we all did it when we were kids, and that textbook answer is, “I know you are, but what am I?” They get it. They’re saying, “Don’t point a finger at me, I am unique, I am different, just like every snowflake is different, don’t put me in a box and try to make me out to be like that person, because I’m me.” And if the point of communication is understanding, then we need to listen closely to what people are actually saying, and not put them in boxes.

And many of us, and I’m guilty of this as well, will create our own understanding that makes us feel good about who we think these people are. It’s much easier to polarize and put people in boxes than to really seek understanding, and if you create a false understanding, it’s not really any understanding at all. Labels are for jars, not people. Technology and social media are just tools, they’re just new avenues, new ways for us to decide how we are going to show up as our authentic or inauthentic selves, because, beyond the billions of devices, and miles of fiber optic cable, and cellular signals, on the end of every other computer and device is a human being, with hopes, dreams, fears, wishes, aspirations, pain, and loss. And it starts here, it starts here.

Time magazine had an article last year, and the research described in the article pointed to the single, greatest determination, a personality trait, that you can base a person’s success on, above all other personality traits. Success in your life, your relationships, in your friendships, in your marriage, parenting, your education, your business. And it was conscientiousness, awareness, knowing who you are, what you’ve been through, not being afraid to admit that your past mistakes and flaws are as much a part of you as all the cool, wonderful things that have happened to you. It’s knowing boundaries of where you end and others begin, it’s having grit to persist, and it’s respecting others for who they are. We have to get this first, because if we don’t get it, then the kids won’t get it.

And if we say something on social media or via text, and it’s hurtful, and it’s judgmental, and it’s critical, and it’s wrong to do, it’s like toothpaste coming out of the tube, you cannot put it back. I had a friend share two years ago very publicly about his divorce, and he put it all out there. Two years later he regrets it, and he’s apologized to his followers because it was inappropriate venue, but there are venues to do this, and there are ways to demonstrate for our children that we’ve got this. Because if we don’t harness and leverage the power of technology and social media, to show up as our authentic, real raw selves, then we will surely lose our humanity through social media. And now, in the spirit of authenticity, I’m going to take a selfie. Let me just get you guys, we’ll turn it around here. Cheer! Thank you very much.

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