Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Importance of Networks in a Down Economy

It goes without saying that the people that make up your community, both online and IRL matter.  The success of a person, an idea or even a movement depend upon the number and quality of relationships between individuals.   And if you're one of the 18.2% of Americans who is currently underemployed,  your social networks could prove to be the most valuable asset you've got.

Connections on Facebook, visualized
Social networks, while hard to quantify, are themselves important economic drivers.  Strong social networks encourage idea exchanges in In a recent piece for the Atlantic Richard Florida explains the role of social networks in the economy thusly:  "jobs requiring the highest level of social skill are the most concentrated in the very largest metro areas--where, combined with the high prevalence of analytic skill, they underpin faster rates of innovation and growth." To put it more simply (and butcher the old cliche), in creative economies it's not just what you know, but who you know.  

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell acknowledges the importance of a personality type he calls "connectors."  Connectors, (along with the other two types, Salesmen and Mavens), are responsible for creating social epidemics - the kinds of wide-scale changes that turn quirky styles in to trends, and causes in to movements.  Gladwell defines a connector as someone who knows everyone in the world and how to bring those people together, but I would argue that everyone has a little bit of connector in them.  Even if your network is small, it likely spans different social groups and incorporates people with different areas of expertise.  Knowing who knows what can be just as valuable as knowing that information yourself.

Shifting gears from theory to action, I had the opportunity to attend the annual NESAWG conference in Albany this past weekend.  NESAWG is a collection of food policy advocates, farmers, academics, and eaters that considers itself a social impact network.  After a weekend full of mixers, working groups, and roundtables it's not surprising that my group's biggest action item was to create an online platform where we can continue to collaborate and share resources - i.e. network.  (Stay tuned on this project -- I'm leading the charge and am quite excited about it)

On an even more personal note, my networks have helped me immensely over the past few years.  Whether its a small thing like finding a specific article or something more important like introducing me to a prospective employer, I've been assisted in countless ways by my friends and professional contacts.  And now that I've graduated and am facing some of the grimmest job prospects in recent history, I've found myself falling back on my networks.  Over the past few weeks I've been excited and inspired by the creative ideas coming from my equally overeducated and underemployed friends.  We know there is a lot of work to be done to make our communities more just and resilient, its just a matter of figuring out how to turn that work in to paying jobs.  Both for ourselves and for others.

And perhaps this is all just an elaborate way to justify going out for a drink on a weeknight with a few friends and strangers.  Call it socializing, call it networking, call it slightly reckless.  Whatever you call it, if you're committed to social and environmental change its important to continuously build your  network.  You never know when you'll need to call back on that connection as a resource, 


Elina (Healthy and Sane) said...

Yup, very true. Social networking is very important. You never know how it may come in handy... plus it's fun to meet new people and build on existing relationships. :)

Signe said...

Networks are also important for new and existing businesses. A cool part of the food movement is this push towards more personal economic exchanges through CSA, farmers markets, and other direct marketing approaches. Customers and producers are becoming part of the same social network! Networking in this way can build trust that leads to long-term economic partnerships, sustainable businesses, and more jobs. Happy I made it back to Projects to Finish! Great posts Mari.