Community networking – not social networking – is the answer!
Social networking was once seen as a game-changer, and indeed it was, though not necessarily exactly as it was first envisioned.
Networking, as a social function, is still potentially a game-changer, though not necessarily how you might think.
Communication needs are always changing, propelled by social changes: the young are leaving Facebook for Snapchat and TikTok, and most everyone, regardless of online use, is a bit cranky – too much physical social isolation.
We now have a few generations raised on video games, Netflix, as well as social networking.
As usual, some of us are wondering, what’s next? A metaverse? Quick trips to outer space?
Investors want to know what’s next, especially what gets people excited enough to spend money.
The idea of community should not be just about money, it has however been attracting businesses for some time now.
Like Facebook (aka Meta).
Facebook’s initial focus was on a community of sorts, and made millionaires of some investors.
Online social networking is not social community.
Certainly, online social networking can lead to some sort of community functions, especially if connecting is followed by people actually meeting in person.
Online social networks are a system design, one that, ironically, excludes people from the functions of networking.
That is, the network processing is done by machines not people.
“Social networking” is not the same as people who are networking.
People that are a network is an entirely different approach to connecting.
As we’ve all heard that today’s online social networking is a curse and a benefit: it enables connecting but also helps separate people into isolated groups.
You may receive some benefit, but you’re dealing with networking that is neither truly social nor is it a living functioning community.
According Merriam-Webster, the number 1 definition of social network is “a network of individuals (such as friends, acquaintances, and coworkers) connected by interpersonal relationships.”
Number 2 is “an online service or site through which people create and maintain interpersonal relationships.”
Number 2 is a tool to achieve number 1.
Or should be.
Interpersonal plus in-person = community.
The functions of networking and community have been studied extensively.
Columbia University’s Teachers College for example – their Dynamic Network Lab’s mission is to “use social network, motivation, and decision science to positively impact individuals, groups, and organizations.”
Something like this is what Facebook says it is doing: “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” (2021 FB Investor Relations)
“Community” is a business.
There are several businesses literally named just “community.”
They promote community awareness and connectivity, a technology-enabled tool.
There are communities of businesses, and businesses that promote communities of businesses.
There are businesses based on providing comprehensive listings – networks – listing almost anything a local community has to offer.
Simon Solutions is one, declaring that it will produce “a more networked, collaborative, and comprehensive approach to transforming lives and communities.”
They make directory listings of services that relate to a location like a village, town, or city.
Stillwater, Oklahoma, population 50,000, is one example of this online networking.
Stillwater actually has several networks: a public library with a links page of local services, a city government with their listings, and a Simon Solutions directory.
Together, the Stillwater listings represent a comprehensive resource, and yet all of this misses the point – the bigger picture.
Which is: technology enables people, rather than people enabling people.
Local government departments, the public library, and nonprofit services, should practice personal networking in order to bring services closer to the community.
Communities could benefit from two forms of networking: one for local government, the other for local resources.
Of all the functions any community has, there are two that can have the greatest impact: the local (village, town, city) government, and the local public library.
Both could offer improved services if they learned to network and collaborate.
Library Community Network
Public libraries used to be a major source of something called reference, as in the reference librarian.
Public libraries are still a pillar of resources and of local personal interaction, they just have not considered what is surrounding them.
The public library represents the cultural center of many communities, and as such, is the best choice to network local resources, those provided by nonprofit organizations.
It all begins with a directory of locally available services and activities offered by nonprofit organizations.
A directory is only a lead-in, directing the way to network services and relationships – between nonprofits serving the local community, the library, and everyone in the community.
It’s not just libraries that are in trouble, communities, as you may have heard, are too.
Or will be in the not too distant future.
Besides the effects of climate change, there are other concerns like resource depletion, peak oil, robotization, aging populations, deforestation and desertification, artificial intelligence, and of course, disease.
And social and personal isolation.
A Library Community Network is killing two birds with one stone: libraries can become more relevant, and community awareness and access to local resources can improve.
Notice the difference between these two photos?
One represents connecting to resources, the other, connecting as a resource.
Granted the first picture – computers in an empty room – was taken in a library near closing time, but the point is – technology is a tool, while human interaction is not just a tool, but the desired end-result.
A goal of technology should be to connect people; the reference librarian’s job should be to facilitate that.
The reference librarian should now have a new purpose: to make locally available resources more visible, and to develop relationships between nonprofit organizations, the public library, and the community.
Community Risk Management
Local government should network their departments to enhance their decision-making functions.
In business and technology, problem solving is often referred to as risk management.
Here we are looking at decisions based on gains and losses.
Should a town invest in electric school buses or diesel?
Can we make a busy intersection safer for school children crossing?
There are countless issues that should require input from a range of government departments, not just one service, or one consultant.
Perspectives from other government departments – networked – can offer greater assurance that a decision is the right one and not something that was railroaded through by the loudest voice in the room.
Departments acting independently or guided by misinformation should be in discussion with their other fellow departments and Trustees.
At least regarding significant issues.
For risk management to function on a community level, it requires representatives from every department to meet and discuss the merits of a proposal, following a formal process that includes assessing all factors involved in an issue.
This is the formal practice of risk management, on a community level.
No one likes directory listings, or government hearings.
Lists and directories on their own are boring.
No one in government is wishing they could attend more meetings.
Connecting local citizens to available resources – whether it’s a food bank, or a bingo game – requires active participation of the community.
Does this sound like a “cat chasing its tail” – connecting citizens requires participation of citizens?
Today, information is everywhere, what’s often missing is someone to help make sense of what is available – where people are part of the network.
A living network isn’t just someone who helps you access or understand a directory listing, it is people who are directly involved with connecting – networking – between the community and the resources available to the community.
People-run networking is not something new, but it might as well be given how out-of-step we as a society have become.
Person-to-person networking in community is actually quite common.
Here are some examples: most activity-oriented organizations have members and networks, nonprofit services have their networks of contacts and associated organizations as does the chamber of commerce, religious groups and social clubs have networks, the local public library often maintain lists of local services and activities and may offer displays and space for cultural presentations, and local government websites often display links to necessary services.
As simple as this actually is to implement, it’s not so easy to grasp – because it is a different way of viewing community networking.
Each of these ideas is actually simple in design.
It requires the active participation of local people.
Although these ideas are simple and relatively easy and inexpensive to implement, they are not all that easy to explain.
You don’t know what’s missing if you’ve never had it to begin with.
If I create a cellphone app that can show all of the services and activities in your community, it may be seen as a reasonable thing to do.
Most people will intuitively understand what these screens look like and what they can do.