Social media and the Country Dance

Into the cloud.

Berea College Country Dancers
My college decided to change its email and calendar-sharing system, opting for to contract with Google to provide services for free.  Aside from the usual grumbling about the features that we’re losing, I was unhappy about moving into “the cloud.” Google doesn’t have a great record of transparency about what it does with one’s data – with lawsuits to prove it.  As one writer said, “ The web means the end of forgetting.”  

My inner Luddite. The folks orchestrating the change have a phrase they use often. They ask us to “examine our process.”  As I explored how Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so many other “free” services synchronized data, my discomfort deepened.  In fact, it seemed as though my inner-Luddite was shouting in my ear.  It didn’t help. The web is full of people who simply pull the plug on social media, perhaps with the aid of the Facebook suicide site, or by simply quitting everything.  All-or-nothing rarely yields good choices: I wanted a different perspective. 

Thin relationships. Without much thought or planning, I found myself in the middle of all sorts of social interactions. Facebook connected me to current friends, old friends, old non-friends, current non-friends, concert venues, my library, and dozens of other people.  But these were, as Umair Haque phrased it so well, “weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.”  Following all these people takes time and attention, but I have as much connection with a person who used to share deep conversation with me as I do with someone who was a passing acquaintance: not only thin, but impersonally thin. 

The mosh pit. This reminded me of my one experience in the mosh pit at a concert – the one that made me swear never to be part of one again. 

The Mosh Pit
At first, it seemed as though we were dancing and interacting.  Then someone nearby was plucked up and passed around overhead. I could hear her yelling “Put me down!” as she went by.  But the mosh pit is not about one-on-one relationships: it operates by its own rules that over-ride individual choices. In fact, it’s hard to stay with even one person – or find them again – in the mosh pit.  Facebook’s unpopular changes to its privacy policies, surprising friend requests from people I haven’t thought about in decades, and the constantly changing stream of statuses and likes and dislikes: just like the mosh pit. 

English and American Country Dance.  What could be more different from the chaos and frenetic pace of the mosh pit than English or American Country dance? It has the same high energy, moves rapidly through the entire space, and includes encounters with dozens of people – but according to pattern, with a tempo, and more than a smidgen of etiquette and even decorum.  

Country Dance in Ottawa
The dances are composed to provide structure for various interactions.  In Fenterlarick, partners rarely interact but progress down the line together; in Newcastle, partners are separated early on, but miraculously return to each other at the last possible moment. In one of my own dances, Easter Morn, one couple can have quite a flirtatious time with each other because of the support of the other couple in the set – and it evens out in the end. 

Country Dance = thicker relationship. Each country dance makes strong and weak connections between dancers – and leaves some possibilities unused.  A dance in square formation has only 8 people to work with, but with infinite variety of transition and combination.  A longways dance includes more people; circle dances are nearly limitless.  Yet the pattern – set by the composer of the dance – invites and dissolves connections, encourages some relationships and discourages others.  Except by mistake – which does happen – one rarely loses one’s partner, set, or line.  Even though they are transient, relationships are thick and real.  The dancers’ attention is focused on just a few others; for a moment, they are the only people in the world. 

Country dance for social media? The primary dynamic of the mosh pit is getting close to all the action and finding a way to stay there – something the proliferation of social media and cloud computing make easier and easier. That’s why so many of us find ourselves moshing rather than conversing.  Thinning out the crowd is the first step to thicker relationships: it’s impossible to give focused attention to dozens or hundreds of people. 

Learn the dance.  Most people have a small number of relationships and reasons for participating in social media that they hold dear. In choreographing their social-media dance, these are the partners and neighbors who should reappear regularly, with focus. By watching one’s step and using lists to shape whom one meets, it’s possible to highlight these thick relationships and let the others be less prominent – still with the potential to awaken and become thick. Are you part of someone’s the “friend collection” of an acquaintance on your colleague’s bowling league? They’ll never miss you when you ease out of the mosh pit. 

Staying with the melody.  People in the mosh pit keep inviting other folks in, even though it’s already full and crowded.  “You’re not using LinkedIn / Twitter / Flickr / Foursquare ? Oh, you’ve got to try it. You won’t believe what it can do!!”  Wait – is it a tool for what you want to do?  Or is it a tool re-shaping your life to itself?  

Listen to the music, the rhythm, the pattern of the dance you have chosen.  Does the new tool fit the dance? Invite it in.  Do you trip over it? Does it lure you off course? Just pass it by.  You can always ask it to dance later … 


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    • I can’t get the link to work – I think it may be overloaded – but I found another blogthat quoted some of the article by Malcolm Gladwell (looks like it will be good). I was taken with this piece of analysis:

      Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice…

      I still like the term “thin” relationships – thank you for reminding me about that post.

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