When I meet my online friends in person for the first time, I’m struck by how we share a particular desire for connecting people. It is not uncommon for any of my friends to say thinks like “Let me introduce you to …” or “You should meet … “
We are connected, but we are also connectors. We are the fabric that makes up the networks in which we are a part.
I look back on my some of my face-to-face colleagues who are not digital connectors. They may play the connector in the face-to-face world, but they are not connected digitally. This means their networks are a fair bit shallower and less diverse. Without the digital, the networks are limited by physical space.
For me, the connections are natural. They are also beneficial. I can link various jobs back to my connections. I teach at uMass-Boston because of a digital connection I made back in 2011. I joined a group of people who wanted to write academic papers about a MOOC on mobile learning (MobiMOOC). I had no idea that we would successfully publish several papers together. I had no idea that four years later, that connection would turn into an opportunity to teach.
In the winter I’ll be teaching at another university. This time the connection is from a friend in Egypt who introduced me to someone who happens to live near my parents. In July, when I was up visiting my parents I went for a hike with my new friend. Afterwards, we stopped by a local pub for a beer with a colleague. In chatting, I discovered that their university was looking for online facilitators. I applied, and am now just awaiting the paperwork. I’ll be teaching a 1/2 credit course there. Again, a job that is a result of my digital connections.
I have yet another story of connection. This one is in a different area. Because of my interest in social media, I make a friend in the UK, who happens to be giving a lecture here in California. We spend a day touring the area together with our spouses. We share meals together. We are friends. A few months later she has the opportunity to extend an invite to a conference. At that conference I meet some folks from a startup. I challenge their product, they answer my challenges. I’m impressed. We connect. This in turn leads to contract opportunities.
This re-counting of my connections sounds so superficial to me. I’m talking about the benefits of networking, but I’m leaving out the even more important part. Being connected means I have friends from around the world. When I visit new places, I have opportunities to connect with my distant friends. When my distant friends have reason to be in my neighborhood, I make ever effort I can to help them have a great experience while they are here. When I have a minor success that I wish to celebrate, then I have online friends who appreciate the accomplishment and can celebrate with me.
I guess my point is, that digital connections matter. I feel sad for my colleagues who don’t feel that it is worth their while to spend a little time fostering digital connections. They may get to their end goal faster (e.g. finishing their degrees sooner), but they do so and then end up lost. They didn’t foster the connections throughout the process, and so when they are done, when they need to call upon their networks for help, the networks aren’t there. They ask “how did you become so connected?” All I can say is that I’m a connector. Everyday, I work at fostering connections. Because, for me, connections matter.