Making friends and staying in touch with friends are essential parts of our shared humanity. More than ever, the whole world of people is available to us through our computers and smartphones. With the communities we belong to, we can continuously make friends. Staying in touch, however, is a different beast. I started using a Personal CRM and hosted a Ness Labs community meetup earlier this year to discuss the subject. The hour-long meetup was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate technical setups. Still, it wasn’t nearly enough time to dive into the “Why?” behind our social networks and reaching out to people. To give the philosophical side of it the time it deserves, I teamed up with Vajresh Balaji, and we co-hosted a three-hour Interintellect salon. We titled it “Cheating on Dunbar”, cheekily referring to the popular Dunbar number that states that we can only maintain around 150 people in our heads.
With nine participants, the salon was one of the more intimate ones. At least some mentioned not being good at socializing as a motivation for attending, feeling that it limits them. As an intro question, we asked them to tell an exciting or unusual story about making a new contact. We heard about someone finding a co-worker they didn’t know they were working with through Twitter. Someone else mentioned a life-long friend they made in college, even though initially thinking they had nothing in common with that person. Another story included a random encounter at an airport.
Interestingly, online communities came up quite a lot. Most of us introduced ourselves by mentioning communities in which we participate. We talked about how every community has a different feel and how even interacting through text-based media as forums and Twitter gives you many insights into other people. Each community can also be a springboard to find the next. Their advantage as social gathering spaces over schools and workplaces is that these virtual groups can stick with us over a more extended period.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, we also talked about offline activities like CampContact and improvised dancing, including physical touch and authentic relating to connecting with people. The sensual part is often missing in our interpersonal encounters, especially during the pandemic where hugs are a no-go. As a virtual replacement, some people remain on video calls during the night, and there’s even a thing called “Lullaby Club” on the Clubhouse app where people stay connected to others while they’re sleeping.
Of course, there are also offline communities we’re part of, like neighborhoods. Those are not usually the people we have most in common with, but they are necessary as a local support network. My neighbor is more likely to notice when I’ve gone missing than a person who follows me on Twitter where someone else easily captures the attention instead. Rebuilding these local bonds can be challenging after moving to a new place.
Whether online or offline, only a subset of the people you meet “graduate” into being your friends outside the community you initially met. We talked about how communities can facilitate this. Our take is that there’s a need for (pseudo-)proximity and repeating interactions, both planned and unplanned. Hence the best online communities are well-organized and have regular events or meetups as well as a space to stay connected (a forum or chat, for example). They need to provide opportunities where connections can happen. It’s also essential for deep and meaningful relationships to have a setting that allows people to let their guard down.
Can we measure the ROI (return-on-invest) for relationships and community participation? We found no framework to describe this. It’s just an intuitive thing. One problem is the timescale, considering the return may be coming much later. In general, though, friendships are not transactional, and socializing usually feels valuable. And if it meets your need, why would you look too hard at the cost?! There are also potential adverse reactions when we think of relationships, especially outside of professional contacts, in these terms.
The next part of the discussion was about note-taking. Most of us did take notes about online events and conversations. Still, we also pointed out that a lot of communication is self-documenting, e.g., in messenger apps, in social networks, or the camera roll on our phones. There’s no need to write down everything, only when it’s insightful. As one participant put it nicely, one goal in any relationship is to have conversations that are so rich and valuable that you want to take notes about them.
Even when notes only capture the surface and contain mostly facts and only a few emotions, we wouldn’t necessarily want the other person or anybody else to read them, for example, because they might include wrong impressions of a person (in line with Rockefeller). There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to note-taking as a way to invest in a relationship. We can frame it as an accessibility tool instead. Something we briefly touched upon was the danger of losing access to digital tools and how open-source and export abilities counteract those.
We also talked about reconnecting and regularly staying in touch. Reaching out on a schedule can be awkward, as the other person probably will notice you’re reaching out as an obligation, but there can still be value in it. One participant mentioned a strategic list of people she’d like to be closer with and how she could achieve it.
One of the objectives of excelling at maintaining notes about your contacts can be to connect other people, for example, when they’re looking for a job or based upon shared interests. None of us did that strategically or tracked the impact, but we relate to the joy that it brings.
Overall, the salon was an delightful conversation that, as expected, didn’t answer all our questions but probably brought us all a step closer to being better at relationships. As these free-flow discussions always turn out different than anticipated, I didn’t expect us to have such a deep focus on communities. Maybe I’m underestimating their function.