Tracing social connections

So far, my thoughts on applications for the ideas from Reassembling the Social have included management, marketing, and entrepreneurship. One more post on this subject, and then I think I’ll be ready on to move on to a new topic. The last topic is that of explicitly social connections, of friends.

Friendship is a tricky topic for me since it involves talking about something I’m not very good at: making new friends. There’s this idea that if two people share a connection, then that connection is meaningful to both parties. It’s the same misconception in another form of the pre-existence of social institutions. For instance, people sometimes say “Oh, you both went to MIT, you must have a lot in common”. Or the idea that we should be friends with our co-workers because we share a workplace. Or the idea that we should be friends with our neighbors because we happen to share a common physical location. All of these ideas have at their root the idea that any sort of connection between two people is enough to build a friendship out of.

And it can be. But sharing a connection like that is not sufficient for friendship, and may not even be a necessary precondition. What makes for a friendship? The same thing we have said in all of the preceding posts – the willingness of the participants to do the work of continually renewing the connection, of putting in the time to make the connection real. Why are they willing to put in that work? It can be for a variety of reasons, from the shared connection examples above to finding each other attractive to pure serendipity.

Beemer brought up the example of how our first high school reunion is so odd in making us realize that once we no longer are spending several hours a day with a group of people, we have nothing in common with them. Without the enforced colocation of school, we no longer have any reason to renew those connections, and so they decay and fall apart. Coworkers provide a similar example; there are several of my former coworkers who I completely lost track of once I stopped working with them and stopped spending eight hours a day with them. Examples like these are why I believe in Latour’s hypothesis of the fragility of social ties, of the need to renew them continually lest they fade away.

It also explains why Christmas cards are such a powerful tradition. Even though the content is often banal, the sentiment being expressed is that “This connection is still meaningful and valid to me”. It is the real world equivalent of Jofish’s virtual intimacy object, a way to ensure that the social connection will not decay just yet. It’s why we phone friends who we haven’t seen in a while, “just to say hi”.

Yet I have several friends with whom I don’t talk very often (once a month or even less), and yet still feel very close to. I suppose it is possible to interpret that as a sign that those connections have been built up so strongly through continued use that they can be renewed with minimal maintenance. But I’m not sure how I feel about that yet. And I’m not sure how Latour’s Actor-Network Theory researcher would interpret such connections – if they don’t observe me for long, they might not see those connections at all, and yet they are very important to me. Hrm.

Another thing that came up while thinking about this post was the ways in which the TEP family renews itself. I was reminded of this recently at the TEP wedding I went to in June. We had a monster Power Dinner the night before the wedding with approximately 40 folks, spanning over two decades worth of TEPs, five four-year generations. The interesting thing was that Batman and I were the only two people who knew virtually everybody there. Others knew their contemporaries plus a few years in each direction, but Bats and I have put in the time and effort to extend our networks out both forward and backward in time. The groom, Unit 5, is obviously another person who had made connections with each TEP generation.

And I thought it was a great example of the type of effort it takes to hold a community like TEP together across time. People like Batman and U5 who stop by the house and get to know each new generation of TEPs, who organize Power Events so that folks get a chance to meet up and renew connections. Batman and I were talking about it later, and realizing how much effort we spend on maintaining these connections, from our cross country flights to see folks, to annual wedding get-togethers, to emails and blogs. It’s indicative of the value that both he and I place on those connections, but it’s also part of how the community stays together. It needs the work of participants like Batman to continually renew and revive those connections.

And yet such connections don’t necessarily need constant tugging. On my 2003 road trip across the country, I imposed on the hospitality of several people with whom I had only talked to once or twice since leaving MIT. I was surprised and pleased to discover how welcome I felt at their homes. And the very act of visiting them and spending time with them renewed those connections. So I’m not quite sure how to fit that into the rest of this post, because those connections had not decayed despite minimal renewal. Although I suppose it could be argued that the hosts in question were just being polite and hospitable, as they would for any friend. But it didn’t feel that way.

There’s also some work here to be done on integrating this theory with the theory of weak ties. If I don’t renew my weak ties regularly, why are they still there when I draw upon them in times of need? Do they exist in some sort of Heisenberg-ian state, ready to be plucked out of virtual-ity at my request? It’s an interesting question. And one I won’t address tonight.

5 thoughts on “Tracing social connections

  1. Channeling Miss Manners, I’ll just point out that there’s a reason we have words for some of these relationships other than ‘friend’. Because these folks aren’t friends, inherently, they’re coworkers, neighbors, classmates, etc. That category mismatch error may be common, but people develop all kinds of complaints when they make it.

    The TEP community is a very odd duck. We have guys like you and Bats doing maintenance, but there’s also something powerful about the self-selection mechanisms. I only spent about 2 days interacting with Indy, and less than 12 hours with Squanto, but they’ve both moved into the orbit of “well, of course I’d [have him stay at my house or whatever], he’s my phraternity brudder” because they hit all the associated pattern-matching triggers so well. Whereas a number of wedding-goers’ spouses, while they seemed like perfectly nice folks whom I’d love to get to know better, didn’t hit those same buttons that say “one of my kind”. As you say, I think it’s something other than constant renewal (although I’m sure a sociologist would have had a field day with how much time we spent on renewal rituals that weekend).

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