Social media has changed the way we meet each other, but it has not changed one thing: both ends of our relationships with others are accidents.
In 2011, I was privileged to work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History as part of the team supporting the temporary traveling exhibition RACE: Are We So Different? during its time at NMNH. Like many contemporary museum experiences, RACE is interactive, compelling, and intended to start a conversation. I talked with visitors in the exhibition regularly, mostly just for a few minutes, but sometimes longer.
One day in August, I met Michael J. Foster, then a science educator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. On vacation in DC, Michael had come to NMNH purely as a tourist, but had stumbled upon the RACE exhibition and a program we had in progress with a visiting scholar. I don’t remember the exact course of events, but he and I ended up talking, and spoke at some length. At one point, I mentioned a couple of my upcoming projects at NMNH for 2012 that focused on science education and diverse, under-resourced youth. Michael offered to be an informal advisor, drawing on his experience working with children and teens at AMNH. After he left, we finalized this professional “meet cute” via LinkedIn and Twitter.
And so as these new projects took shape over the following year, I looked forward to reconnecting with Michael, expecting that they would reach a point where it would be especially worthwhile to contact him. Through our LinkedIn connection, I saw that he’d changed jobs, moving from AMNH to a black men’s support organization on the West Coast. Perhaps he saw the small updates and items that I publish in my online outposts.
Then, about a month ago, I found this tweet:
And when I read it, it was revealed to me that the prospect of someday collaborating with this man was gone––that it had, at that moment, in fact been gone for almost two months. I felt the sadness that one feels when learning that another is gone, and gone too young. I felt sadness knowing that those closest to him must have still, acutely, felt the pain, for they offered tributes, memorials, and other testimony to some of the things he had brought to the world in his time.
I felt an urge to testify about my connection to Michael, too, slight though it is. I tweeted a condolence, fit what I could into 140 characters. And I felt disquieted, not least that I had delayed and now what was once a fine possibility had collapsed into an impossibility.
So as with everyone else I will ever know, both ends of my connection to Michael Foster are accidents. The circumstances of our first encounter required that a lot of things happen in a certain way so that we could have a relatively brief but enriching conversation. To have discovered his passing as I did was equally accidental. One tweet in a stream of thousands upon thousands, there as an unexpected closing parenthesis. But the thing that bothers me most is that those accidents do not frame anything positive that might have been created by virtue of our connection.
On most days, I’d suggest that the value of a personal network is as much its potential for surprise as its dependable outputs. Many of us know that, and we cultivate a range of relationships and contacts beyond those people with whom we are closest. These are our “weak ties,” as sociologist Mark Granovetter named them some decades ago.
Granovetter’s original studies focused on how people living in a few neighborhoods in Boston found jobs. His research suggested that those whose relationships extended beyond their near environment found leads more quickly, even if the further relationships were less intense. Granovetter surmised that even though weak ties would not match the time, intensity, intimacy, and reciprocity of strong ties, they were an asset for the diffusion of useful information. The strength of weak ties lies in extending our relationships out beyond the usual rounds of our lives.
But one difference is that where Granovetter found people benefitting from weak ties that already existed, social media lets us be deliberate about creating them. And it also makes it easier to make them strong.
People often borrow the language of mathematics to talk about social media networks and platforms. You hear about addition and multiplication from the boosters–ways in which it extends your social or intellectual reach. From the critics, you hear about division: echo chambers and social firewalls. Here, though, the operation that looms largest is subtraction.
Weak ties are real ties, because they can be entangled with loss. And all ties are weak ties: always accidental, and therefore precious.
For Michael J. Foster. Missed connections…
Copyright 2012, David D. LaCroix | All rights reserved.