The Value of Networks
To say that networks are important is to state the blindingly obvious. Networks have always been important, from the medieval European confraternity to 20th century golf courses. Now, most people I know go to conferences partly because of the conference program, but mostly because of the extra-conference networking. The conversation that you have between speakers is often more valuable than whatever the speaker is saying. The best thing the speaker can do for you, as a conference attendee, is to provide the common ground, topic, and language to allow a networking conversation to open up around you; even a terrible speaker, one who says things with which everyone in the room vehemently disagrees, can have this effect.
Is this a radical statement? Not to say that there isn’t value in hearing about the status of someone’s research, but that’s what journal articles and even blog posts are for. I don’t go to a conference specifically to hear about that sort of content; there are cheaper means to do so. I go to meet you, to engage with you, and to hear about what others think about what you’re doing while you talk about it. I’m there to meet with others over the common ground of our interest in what you have to say. A gathering of like minds: I’m there to get the whole collection of ideas. This may be why unconferences and camps are gaining popularity; they, at least, at upfront about where the value in a conference lies. Sure, the speakers are important, but so are the conference-goers. Everyone has something to contribute, and there are many, many means of doing so.
I feel like we acknowledge the importance of networking, but do our best to pretend it’s not true at the same time. A very dichotomous relationship to the concept of the social network: networking is everything, but to speak its name is anathema. A colleague of mine at the library tells me that as a Computer Science undergraduate student, the word they used for cheating was “collaborating”. There’s lots being said about networked intelligence, but if someone is looking at facebook or using MSN or AIM at work, they’re being unproductive. (Not to say they’re de facto being productive just because they’re using a social networking tool; that’s unclear without more information.) Networking is supposed to be a quiet activity that you do on your own time. It’s too fun to be work.
I got to thinking about networks a lot lately when I quizzed a bunch of friends on a favourite IRC channel about the differences between various CMS platforms, and then arranged to bring in an old friend to consult with us via AIM. While many people feel they need to hide their networking efforts professionally, I’ve always opted to embrace mine, and I intend to do so even more in future. My network, constructed out of the people that I know whose knowledge and experience I trust, is smarter than I am. As with all information, I must evaluate what I get from my network, but I have the context available to do so; my friend at Google knows lots about web search, but not so much about Google docs, and while one of my friends in California is always on to the new thing, his quick dismissal of popular applications things means his predictions aren’t necessarily on target. This is angle on an old concept. Social networking applications give us the ability to dig for context on our contacts when using our networks to help us form opinions and make decisions; how we know these people, what do we know about them, where does their experience lie, and who do they know: these things can have an impact on the way we interpret information gleaned from them. You can actually be on facebook and not wasting your employer’s time! (Who knew!)
It’s a give and take, of course. I’m not just talking about quizzing my networks when I have a question (though I mean that as well). My networks give me things to think about all the time; they shape my thinking, point me in new directions, give me a sense of where things are moving. They show me where the trends are, what I should be paying attention to. The network imparts knowledge not only in the direct sense, but also through ongoing participation. We are a participatory culture online: web 2.0 is pretty well ingrained into us at this point. We talk back. It’s the talkback that turns around and alters my brain chemistry.
I’ve been cultivating my networks for years. Because my personal life and my professional life cross at so many points, it’s serendipity that my social network can be so valuable to me in a professional capacity. One of the most exciting things to discover is that an old connection from another community is bringing a new vision and new interpretation to my wider network.
In short: I’m starting to think seriously that it’s part of my professional responsibility to read twitter, my feed reader, Facebook, etc. in order to be shaped by my network.
Meanwhile, the professional speaker circuit doesn’t like this. Attending a talk, as I’ve outlined, has a two-fold impact: the obvious one, gaining insight from the speaker, and the hidden one, where I am further inspired, provoked, and shaped by my network in light of what the speaker is saying, and my intrepretation of it. That’s my true professional development, in the crossroads of all those things.
In probably 80-90% of most business and conference settings speakers have a message to give â€“ at keynote speeches and large company events – the large audience venues. It is not a groupthink or collaboration.
If this is what the speakers of the world think, that most of the time we are there only to absorb their message without interpreting it and reinterpreting it on our own, that the bigger the event the more we should shut up and absorb, I’m afraid they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths and supporting an educational system that just doesn’t work.
In this post, Bert Decker suggests that it’s rude to IM during a conference, but presumably it’s not rude to jot down notes. In fact, isn’t jotting down notes the best sign in our culture that you’re paying attention? If you walk into a meeting with no paper to jot down notes on, people tend to presume that you don’t think anything of value is going on. This is considered unprofessional, and you will be pulled aside and given a talking to about it. Always come prepared; always carry something to write down notes on. That’s how you demonsrate respect! Rudeness is in the eye of the beholder on this one; if people are tweeting during your talk, perhaps you should take it as a compliment. They feel there is something in the talk to record and share with their network.
The way we create and feed our networks is to participate in them. We share our thoughts on the ideas that come to us; we build systems of thought and method based on the interplay between primary, secondary, and tertiary information. The tweets of the guy next to me during a big keynote is my secondary source, the thing that provides more voices and opinions to the information I’m gleaning.
Constant networking is impossible, and it’s important to know when it will help you and when it will distract you. But while most traditional folks like to take notes when they attend keynotes, I like my notes to talk back to me at the same time. If you’re not ready for the rich dialogue that it allows me to enter into with you based not only on my own experience and ideas, but also those of my network, I’m not sure you’re the right person to be giving that keynote in the first place.
My network is valuable; I bet yours is too.