Networking and Community Building

I have a strong distaste for networking.

And yes, yes, feel free to insert a joke here about “networking” and “network science.” It’s all very clever.

Nevertheless, having attended five conferences in the last six weeks, this is a topic fresh on my mind: I have a strong distaste for networking.

The word itself conjures utilitarian interest of the most basic kind: inserting yourself into someone’s life for the primary purpose of personal benefit and advancement. Selecting who you meet and engage with motivated by the question, what can you do for me?

To be fair, not all networking has to be like this, but the word has been so sullied by visions of frat-boy bros boasting of instrumental interactions, that I find I have a hard time relating to it.

In it’s stereotypical incarnation “networking” seems to go against everything a deliberative democrat stands for – human interaction should be rich and mutually engaging; it should be creative and generative. To “network” in the hopes of self-elevation just seems crass and tawdry in comparison.

Every once and awhile I run across an article in a business magazine insisting that networking in this sense is acceptable because everyone uses it for instrumental purposes: it’s not just about what you can get out of them, but about what they can get out of you.

However, dressing instrumentality up with nods to mutual benefits misses the point: instrumental interactions are shallow, hollow. They may achieve an immediate, narrow, goal, but they do little to advance the larger human enterprise of collaborative living.

It’s a shame, really. Collectively we could achieve so much more.

I don’t mean to pretend that I’m wholly absolved of participating in instrumental action – I initiate such interactions everyday at shops, stores, and other public settings. And, no doubt, I have engaged in networking for instrumental ends.

But the point remains that there is a better way –

One of the most exciting things about network science is how inherently interdisciplinary it is. We all have tremendous gaps in our knowledge – we all have to listen to, learn from, and make space for each other.

I have met so many amazing people in the last several weeks. Folks with fascinating stories and brilliant insights. Folks who are just as anxious, uncertain, and self-deprecating as I am. Folks who don’t seem to “network” for personal gain, but who rather actively work to make space for those around them.

The more I think about it, the more I think “networking” is the wrong frame all together.

At a good conference, people don’t come together as individuals looking to gain value by connecting with other individuals. Rather people come together as members of a nascent community, looking to engage together in the work of building that community.



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