Along with landline telephones, fax machines were the social media of their time

As a volunteer, I’ve been involved with community organizing since before the days of fax machines.

Fax machines were a form of social media. When they involved long-distance phone charges, they were also an expensive form of communication. In time, email distribution lists took the place of faxes to a large extent. Email lists are still around but have largely been replaced by social media such as Twitter, Basecamp, Google + and other resources.

Letters sent by Canada Post, along with landline phone calls, also played a key communications role in the days of fax machines.

The point of social media, from my perspective, is to enable face to face meetings among a wide range of individuals, with a diverse set of skills and personalities, to occur. With face to face meetings, you have something that technology can never replace.

Interface between digital and physical realities

The digital is the machine and the physical reality is the garden. The interface between them gives rise to the metaphor of the Machine in the Garden.

The interface between the digital and the physical world isn’t a new phenomenon, any more than social media is a new phenomenon. The interface referred to in the previous sentence is not unlike the interface between a person’s everyday thoughts – one’s inner world of random sense impressions and rumination – and the social and physical reality in which we spend our days.

[Update: Let us express this in another way. As research cited at an Oct. 16, 2013 The Current episode on CBC Radio underlines, if you are wealthy, your inner experiences are of such a nature that your perception of the outer social and physical reality tends to be consistently distorted. You don’t care, in other words, as much about what is happening outside of your immediate environment as would otherwise be the case. This is remarkable research. The above-noted podcast (see link at the start of this paragraph) is well worth a listen. End of update]

Face to face communications

Much of what we know about how innovation is based upon a body of research that suggests that chance face to face encounters and conversations spark new insights leading to innovative products and fresh insights. Technology-based social networking is helpful to the extent it enables such encounters to occur. Cities around the world are in competition to create such face to face environments.

By way of summary, here is what I’ve learned about these topics:

1. Community organizing of any kind is a creative, interactive process. You try something out. If it works, you build upon it. If it doesn’t work you try something else.

2. Having a clear sense of what one is working toward is helpful, as often a community-building project requires months or years of focused, day to day effort in order to achieve its objectives.

3. At times there’s no substitute for plain hard work, just focusing, day to day, on learning specified skills, or completing essential tasks. In my case, getting things done typically requires putting my email and browser aside, and setting a timer for 90-minute stretches of uninterrupted, focused work. The biggest impediment to getting things done – something that was not as much an issue in the days of fax machines – is multi-tasking. Social media has many benefits. The drawback is that, unless a person makes a conscious decision to focus on getting a particular task completed, without distractions, she or he can waste a lot of time sending and reading online messages.

4. Over time, if a person or organization develops a reputation for excellence in a particular area, more and more people will turn to them for information and assistance.

5. Another key principle is: Finish what you start.


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