Friday, February 15, 2013

Making Connections

I got on the bus today, or rather tonight, and fumbled to scan my bus pass with my tired hand.

"How's it going?" the driver asked.

"Not bad," I answered.  Then after a pause - "Sort of sore."


"I just finished working out, and my arms are so tired I can barely hold my pass."

From there, we were talking.  We discussed various jobs we'd had, growing up on the farm, His time in the US army, our dads, introduced ourselves, and then I hopped off at my stop with a promise we'd continue our conversation next time I was on his bus.

One of my friends asks me how I end up talking to people all the time, and why.  I try and answer, but there doesn't seem to be a nice pat response.  A couple weeks ago I met one of his friends, and the two of us (his friend and I) ended up talking about his work on the production line of a fairly interesting product.  I had a connection, as about two years ago I talked for a half hour with a guy who had worked redesigning the product.  I had connected with that guy because I knew some people from the town he'd been working in, because I had just spent several months working in a neighbouring community.  I'd gotten that job because I'd spent a few minutes talking to a girl after a presentation she did for my class, and when she was contacted by the person trying to fill the position, she recommended me.  So part of the answer is that connections breed other connections.

Another part of the equation is that I talk to people, a lot.  I visited with a girl today who was using a microfiche machine next to me - we talked about how cool microfiche machines are, and our experiences exploring rolls of film in the stack. Is it normal to have a conversation with strangers in the library? I think so - and in fact in this case she started it when she told me the machine I was going to use seemed to be broken - but generally I start these conversations, but how?

Part of the answer is that I choose to step out of, well, not my comfort zone - I choose to step out of the easy path, the socially proscribed path that leads me through my day without ever having meaningful connections. When someone asks how you are, you aren't supposed to actually answer, but the opportunity is there, the opportunity to open up and share something that seems interesting to you, are better yet, to ask a question that the person you are meeting looks qualified to answer.

This brings me to my next question - how does this approach play out in a world that is increasingly online? It seems that developing connections to people online is a lot harder than it is in the real world.

Let me give you a scenario. You've met someone somewhere, and exchanged facebook info.  You add each other (I won't get into the politics of who adds who) and then the process begins. I go and look at their pictures, making the odd comment, so they know that I'm genuinely interested in them.  They perhaps do the same, but if they don't comment, I don't know. I post something, and tag them in it, as a way of forcing a connection.  They come, perhaps comment on it, or maybe just "like" it as an acknowledgement that they've seen it and condone your tagging of them.  And then you spend the next ten years randomly liking the odd thing on each others' walls, having the odd small discussion, but never really going much further in developing a friendship.  The friendship will be developed mostly in those chance meetings offline, when you actually are free to discuss your mutual friends, hash out ideas, and see each other.  The few times you send emails to each other will be mostly about planning events, but you can't really bring yourself to send an email, unsolicited, because the pretext just isn't there.

A second scenario.  You're on an online forum. You meet someone who shares your interests, so you start discussing random ideas.  You never really discuss things with each other - you just end up on the same side of discussions, and back each other up from time to time. Because of the context, every discussion you ever have will be related to subjects brought up by other people.  You might snoop a bit and reply to the odd old comment they've made, just so they know you are taking a deeper interest in them, but it's a fine line between interest and strange. Still, there really isn't any other way to show that you value the connection that you've been building together.

Now that I'm looking at these situations analytically, I wonder if while I know how to jump the ruts to real connections in my day to day life, I don't know how to in the online world... Or maybe I'm just not single-minded enough.

The end result of my love of connecting to people has been that I am well networked - I have connections in many places, many fields, many communities - and the assumption would be that the online world, with its focus of connecting people, would be even better - but for me it's not.  The reason it isn't, is because while "networking" my be the result of my proclivity to connect, it was never the goal.

Much of the online world's tools for connecting people seem to fall into three groups - they are designed specifically for developing business connections (think linkedn), they are for maintaining the connections we already have (think facebook), or they are designed to help us connect to a subculture of people who think like us (think every online ghetto you have ever seen focused on a specific TV show).  What the internet has done in making connecting so easy is that instead of creating connections with the stranger on the bus (though I did meet a cool guy while reporting a bug in a website he was maintaining) we are either connecting with those we already know, or we are connecting with those who are like us.  The more we are connected, the less we have to connect to anything that is different, that is "other" to our worldviews.

At one point ICQ (Iseekyou!) allowed us to randomly connect us to new individuals, and I met everyone from Bulgarian office workers to HongKong music stars (Twins!).  Skype had thousands of chatrooms, and I would go online and listen to new languages, meet new people, but as the world migrated away from ICQ and into MSN (designed to keep random connections to a minimum), Skype decided that it was more important to protect its clients' bubbles than to allow them free range to interact.  Facebook really represents the pinnacle of this progression, with a culture where not only do we not randomly connect with new people, but we can't do a meaningful people crawl from friend to friend.  This has all been done for a reason, I know, but the net result in my opinion is that the entire online world is becoming ghetto-ized in a way that we usually try to avoid in our real lives.  Connections are encouraged within our circles, but discouraged without.

And that is part of why I find myself talking to strangers.  It's because as my life seems to migrate onto the internet I start to feel disconnected from the disconnected - all my connections are with people I already have connections with, and it becomes to easy for me to sink into the comfortable net of who I already am to the detriment of who I am becoming, of who I want to be.  It's too easy for me to turn my existing life into a rut that I roll through with predictability, rather than exploring new connections, and bringing the new back into the old, allowing me to explore who I and my family and friends already are in new ways, even as I weave in new threads.

So many parts, I still don't think I have the whole of an understanding as to how and why, but I am further along than when I started writing here.  How do you connect to new people? And why do you choose to do it?


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