Social Networking and Community Building

I know I talk a lot about the process of knowledge creation and my belief that this is a social process; the coming together of individuals to build and share ideas, insights and understandings but earlier today it struck me that much of our world is really not a very social place. I think that culture and societal norms play an enormous part in this yet in the first world where we pride ourselves in our level of education and knowledge we have a long way to go to bridge the social gap.

It is a beautiful sunny spring day on the west-coast and I was running a few errands downtown and as I came out of an office building into the lovely sunshine I came across an older couple walking towards me holding hands. In a cheerful voice I wished them a good morning and was met with the coldest set of stares I have encountered in a long time. Not too far past them there was a middle aged gentleman coming towards me so I tried again and this time I got a grumpy “what’s your problem?” look. So I tried a third time as I came to the door of the parkade and thanked the person who held the door open for me but it was as though I should have just walked in and said nothing as it seemed that I was disrupting this person’s day by asking him to acknowledge me through my thank you. Now I am sure I may be challenged on these perceptions but I have always seen urban west-coast Canadians to be insular, aloof, and stand-offish. My granddaughter always asks me why I try to talk to everybody and I continually explain that it is a really important way to reach out and build a community. She tries and she gets ignored or outright shunned and this makes me sad and upset.

I remember the first time my wife and I drove to Southern California. It was a hot and sunny summer afternoon and we had been driving for about 6 or more hours and decided to stop in a tiny town off Interstate 5 in northern California. The AAA guidebook indicated that there was a suitable motel with a pool and as the temperature was in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit this seemed ideal. We stopped at a little strip mall and as we got out of our car a gentleman walked up to us, greeted us and welcomed us to his town (based upon the nature of the community and his clothing he may have been a farm worker). We were greeted this way by everyone we met. Later that afternoon we stopped a police officer to ask if he had any suggestions about a place to have dinner in town and he drove us to his recommended dining spot, got out, shook our hands and thanked us for stopping in his community. San Diego was our destination that summer and everywhere we went (small towns or large) we were greeted in a similar rich and embracing manner. We soon began to realize that it was rude to not say hello to people you passed on the street and almost everyone was willing to engage in a cheerful conversation. This was so novel but so very cool and when we got home we decided that we needed to try this public “hello” and “stranger talking” in our community. Well I remember that it was met with strange looks and curt rebuffs such that we just decided to stop putting ourselves out and being seen as social misfits.

I don’t get it. I didn’t get then and I still don’t get it. How can we build rich and informed communities if we won’t talk to each other? There are a million excuses and none of them hold any water. I try to get my students to engage each other and work collaboratively to learn and to work to sufficiently understand the processes involved in their learning such that the process of socialization becomes the norm and not some freak-show that happens once or twice in a class and then gets forgotten. I love spending time in Mexico because no matter where you walk everyone is so engaged and eager to talk and to be a part of an enriching experience. Yes it is their culture but why can’t we learn the value of this form of engagement? If my students came to me less insular and less “me – product” focussed then maybe their appreciation of the social experiment in my classes might be better understood and they might be more receptive to the process. Let’s get out and push the bounds of our public conversations a little more. Social networking is not a new phenomenon. Come for a walk with me someday and let’s meet people who could use a little socialization. Maybe, just maybe we could warm the community up a little.

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