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Page history last edited by Nina Simon 14 years, 5 months ago



    In the summer of 2009, I took up beach volleyball.  My first day of adult beginner volleyball class, the instructor, Phil Kaplan, said, “You're all a little nervous today. You don't know anyone else, you don't know how to play. It's ok. By the time you leave you will have lots of friends to play volleyball with.” Kaplan learned all fifty of our names by the end of the first session, and he took every opportunity to query people about their work and other interests. He helped us set up an email list and encouraged us to set up another evening a week during the class to practice together. Some of us went for it and started playing on our own, and by the fall, we had formed a tight group of friends who played together weekly. We went from being isolated strangers led by a strong instructor to becoming a self-organized group who are socially connected to each other in a substantive way. By addressing us personally and encouraging us to connect as individuals, Kaplan set up the beginnings of a social network.

    Not every social experience generates this kind of outcome. We’ve all been in venues filled with people with whom we have shared affinities without making a meaningful interpersonal connection. You sit in a packed crowd at a conference but exchange only pleasantries with the people seated nearby. You spend hours in a library or book cafe without chatting about what you are reading. You explore an exhibition and assiduously avoid contact with other people who have chosen to peruse the same content. Social networks do not spontaneously emerge, even in places that are organized around idiosyncratic content. The key to creating opportunities for social networks is not about setting up a venue in which people can interact. The key is to start with individuals, and to connect people together person by person, unique shared interest by unique shared interest. It wasn’t volleyball class that forged my new friendships in the summer of 2009. It was Kaplan’s attentiveness to each of his students as individuals rather than a crowd of learners. He encouraged us to see each other as potential friends, not just anonymous fellow-students.

    The term “social network” implies a system of individual nodes, and that’s how the most familiar and successful social networks operate. They start with individuals and layer on only the necessary infrastructure to support connections among users. This is true whether you are talking about Facebook or a volleyball group.  There are some social venues, like rock concerts, when we enjoy being faceless members of the crowd. But in most cases, it's lonely, even terrifying. The fictitious bar Cheers was “the place where everybody knows your name” for a reason—being treated as an individual is the starting point for a community experience.

    In a social network, each unique user enters the experience through a personal profile. Sites like Facebook and LinkedIn expect you to start with an exhaustive profile-making activity in which you detail your interests and affinities. Personal self-expression—through your appearance, preferences, and actions—allows you to express yourself relative to other people. We each use our personal identities to signal who we are, who we want to meet, what we are open and closed to. The more strongly you self-identify, the easier it is to find the communities that are appropriate for and compelling to you.

    And so online communities are based around "social webs," each with a particular individual at the center. Each user is attached to other people, products, institutions, and ideas via his own self-expression and preferences. Some sites, such as LinkedIn, very explicitly show the social web of "links" between you and others. The expectation is that you are not interested in everyone in the universe of LinkedIn. And so the system makes it clear who you are connected to, and who they are connected to, with the confidence that you will want to grow your social web based on your pre-determined affinities and identity.



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Comments (1)

Sarah Barton said

at 4:30 pm on Dec 2, 2009

Very clear demonstration of the power of a person and an invitation. SB

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