Monday, March 19, 2007
The black science-fiction writer Samuel Delany once made a distinction between two things that people do: networking and making contact. He started by suggesting that networking is getting in touch with people instrumentally--that is, for economic or material gain of some sort. Then he told a story: a friend of his was out for a run one day in New York City, and he saw an old lady get mugged. The thief knocked her over, then took off running with her purse. The guy ran over, helped the lady to her feet, and said, "Wait a minute--I'll be right back.' Then he took off after the mugger. Delany's friend is a marathon runner. Once the mugger saw someone was chasing him, he ran faster. The runner just maintained his pace and kept the thief in sight. After a while the mugger started to get a little tired, but the runner was still coming on strong. Eventually, the mugger had to stop and catch his breath. Delany's friend ran up to the guy, slapped him, snatched the old ladies' purse back, and said, 'Shame on you.' Then he turned around, ran the distance back to the old lady, and gave her back her purse. That was contact, Delany explained.
I tell the story because today I'm convinced that much of what has been called Web 2.0, including YouTube, Wikipedia, eBay, blogs like the one you are reading, and MySpace and other social networking sites, are actually more about contact than networking. People may log on searching for material gain, but it's really about electronically reaching right out to someone and saying nothing too much more complicated than 'Hello.' One begins by wanting to sell a crappy used laser pointer, or show off the way you can swing a sentence, or even get famous. But as Chris Rock once said, no matter what you might think about strip clubs, you are NOT going to get laid in the Champagne room. And you are not gonna get famous on YouTube. (Just ask Little Loca.) But if you poke around a bit, you might read or see something moving. Or you might share a moment with someone you've never met before.
A few weeks back, on the night before our daughters' birthday, Anette won an online auction for a Kaufladen, which is basically a small set of shelves, a toy cash register, and a front counter, all of which a kid can use to play General Store. The parents of the previous owner were very sweet, especially after Anette explained that we really hoped to win the auction (hint hint) because we wanted to give their Kaufladen as a birthday present to our little girl the next day. In fact, after we won, the father of the other kid drove the thing over to us personally. I met him down on the street to pay him, and I brought him a bottle of wine, because we thought it was so nice of the guy to haul it across Vienna to us. We stood there under the streetlights, smiling goofily, and he asked me, 'So how old is your daughter?' When I told him, he said, 'Oh really? That's how old our girl is!' And he smiled like he knew me.
It was just a little exchange. But that was contact.