On Liaisons

This post follows both a thread of blog posts from Amy Collier, Kate Bowles, and Maha Bali and (I think at least) contributes to a larger week-long conversation taking place in #digciz, which I’ve yet to quite figure out but describes itself as a conversation. I like that.

There are a couple different pieces here. One of which touches on adolescent Adam, who is a reoccurring character here on, and then I try to speak to technology, which will be haphazard at best so feel free to dip in and out of this depending on which sections interest you more.

Let’s start in high school, mostly because it’s a good story and because it helps me frame my view of network theory a bit. In high school, I didn’t identity myself with any particular “clique.” This likely stems from being a smidge introverted and not being heavily involved in one specific organized activity like sports, band, drama, etc. I mostly just played guitar and surfed the web and there was no Surfing the Web Club. I believe this was also a product of rejection in formidable years where social cliques where starting to form. Try as I might, other kids were quicker to recognize that I wasn’t like them faster than I could. Thus I developed a social identity that was dependent of the constructs of high school cliques and floated around a variety of groups. Rather than stick with one specific group of friends, I often curated my own with people who I respected and enjoyed their company (I still do this by the way). I was friends with nerds and popular kids and musicians and stoners etc etc.

My perspective on this situation was always that I didn’t have a strong group of friends. It wasn’t until I was much older and at a local music venue that I ran into a guy from high school who had a different vantage point of me. Filled with enough cheap liquid courage, he was kind enough to admit that he actually admired me in high school because he felt that I was someone who was respected amongst a wide group of people despite not looking or acting like them. This felt very flattering and utterly surprising as I tend to view his high school self as more awkward than anything else.

When I’ve read about social network theory, I’ve always came back to this stage of adolescence as a way of putting it in terms I can understand. An early tool for visualizing social networks used the terms participants, group members, isolates, and liaisons. This has been adapted overtime as a way to explain everything from organizational behavior theory to adolescent cliques in the field of sociometrics. The term “liaison” is described in 1981 as such:

liaison – A node which connects two or more groups within a system without belonging to any group.

Adapted from NEGOPY

I want to make one other mention of a time in which I felt like I played the role of “liaison.” Editor’s note: I’m going to admit in advance that the setup is a bit long. That’s because I’m being a bit selfish and leveraging this as an opportunity to write about a time in my life that I’ve never really written about extensively. It also focuses on the idea of not quite feeling an overwhelming sense of belonging. So, apologies, but this is my blog…

I graduated college in an economic downturn. I always describe my graduation as a mass deer-in-headlights scene. A decade ago the field of journalism was being turned on its head and we were all under the impression that we had made a very poor choice in study as we were being told that it is was very likely professionals were no longer needed.

So, without a job in hand, I moved into my mom’s house thus fulfilling my generational stereotype. I intentionally used the phrase “mom’s house” instead of “home” because home was quite right given the recency of my parent’s separation. It had been less than a year and she had decided to move houses and thus it never felt like I was slipping back into the comfortable space I knew before I left for college.

I spent the next two months looking for work until I finally was offered a full-time salaried position as an account manager for a sock manufacturing company. My job was to be the intermediary between large department stores like Saks and the warehouse. Lucky for me, it turned out that–despite the economic climate–people still bought socks. It had nothing to do with my study but it was guaranteed to be steady.

I purposely completed all of major requirements the fall semester of senior year so that I could spend the spring “taking it easy” and preparing for the job market. One of the courses I took was a practicum were I could be a DJ for on-campus college radio station. At the time, I had my own band where I sang, played guitar, and music that I wrote in my bedroom. We were just starting to get our footing in the local scene but only with smaller venue promoters. I decided that I would create a show that was focused on local music as a way to get to know some more local acts. I reached out to band managers, local concert promoters, as well as some online forums (shoutout: There was a band management company called BOMB Productions who managed a couple bands who I booked on the show: The City Lives who had recently finished a run with The All-American Rejects and Theatre Breaks Loose, a relatively new band who was set to release the first record the month I was set to graduate.

Six weeks into working at the sock company, one of Theatre Breaks Loose’s managers gave me a call. He mentioned the band was to head out on a six week national tour as a supporting band for a band called Asteria. He said that he felt like the band really needed a lead guitarist to fill out the band a bit and that he believed I could be the guy. The only problem was that the tour started in a week so if I wanted to go we would need to get the band on board and make a quick decision.

This call was on a Sunday. I spent Monday learning the songs and tried out on Tuesday. By Wednesday the band called me and asked if I would come with them and on Thursday I told my boss that Friday was going to be my last day. On paper it sounds like a quick turnaround but I really fretted over the decision to leave my job. Beyond feeling very fortunate to have any job at all, my mom was recently separated and I didn’t want to disappoint her by leaving her and rejecting the opportunity to earn a steady paycheck after she had supported my education. Yet when I asked her for her advice, she just shrugged and said that I may never get this kind of opportunity again and there would be plenty of entry level jobs if and when it didn’t pan out. Gosh, I love my mom.

I always describe my brief period touring as a very skewed way of seeing the country. There are very specific portions of U.S. that I’ve been to, but I never really got to fully experience. Often you wouldn’t spend more than 24 hours in a city and you were constantly “on the clock” because life consisted of loading in, playing, selling merch, loading out, driving, and sleeping. So I’m spending 24 hours a day with a group of guys who know each other very well but I had just met, which also adds the extra element of the fact that the first tour also feels like a very intensive interview process. There’s also something about being a representative for somebody else’s music, which I won’t get into, but is vastly different if you’ve became used to playing your own music. The culmination of all of this: being on the road playing someone else’s music with people you don’t know in the middle of trying to build both a new identity and a new understanding of home and family… This is where I connect most of the recent conversations on belonging.

But, ok, so here’s where networks come in. Outside of the people you spend all day with, your only social connections are other bands playing the bill and people who come to the show. Promoters don’t trust that up-and-coming national acts will draw enough people to the show to make it worth their while (and rightfully so) so they’ll throw a couple local acts on as openers so their friends will come to the show.

When people think about independent music, the focus tends to be on the artist’s ability to independent own and distribute their art. But independent music relies on a multitude of dependent variables that make it possible (the lions share being a community of people who attend local shows). If you are touring, the sheer existence of a local act on the bill can be a make it or break it opportunity for you in a city you’ve never played before. Independent music only exists because of these small localized scenes. And the web of these local scenes, the sum of all of these parts, is what allows you as an artist to reach a scale that is sustainable. Because of this web, we could exist.

For me, if only for a brief period, the band felt like I was a this go-between node–a liason–between a bigger network of like-minded individuals who didn’t even know each other existed, but yet their existence allowed us to share art. For an artist to be “independent” or embrace “indie,” it requires you to rely heavily on the community–the network. For me, to embrace independence is to forgo placing your trust in what feels predictable. And it’s this balance of self and community that I believes is easily lost.

One person who’s writing has really spoken to me on this subject is Amanda Palmer who has a book titled The Art of Asking, who has wrote and spoke often about being a street artist and independent music artist.

For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community. Connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the Internet and the content that we’re freely able to share on it are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough. So a lot of people are confused by the idea of no hard sticker price. They see it as an unpredictable risk, but the things I’ve done, the Kickstarter, the street, the doorbell, I don’t see these things as risk. I see them as trust. Now, the online tools to make the exchange as easy and as instinctive as the street, they’re getting there. But the perfect tools aren’t going to help us if we can’t face each other and give and receive fearlessly, but, more important — to ask without shame. – Amanda Palmer

Side note: She has also spoken about releasing her book with a major publisher and that it’s okay to be contradictory.

Ok, so I’ll bring this back to how this has influenced my thinking about technology as well. There’s a history of false thinking that because the Internet is a technology with infinite ways of hooking into and accessing it, that it is the great equalizer. Network theory says otherwise. Anytime, that you give people a space to meet, they are prone to clustering together based off a variety of reasons: familiarity, ease of communication, and a desire to eliminate uncertainty. The web is still a high school cafeteria. Humans are attracted to organization. Organization requires familiarity. So first we build tools like Twitter that allow a network to communicate and then we build ways in which we can organize around it through tools like the hashtag. And, feel free to argue with this, but I see people begin to identify with a hashtag–not with Twitter.

Here’s where my thoughts run out and where I start to pose questions. First, how do we begin to recognize that working in public space and utilizing technology does not mean everyone can or will engage? I’ll use myself as an example here. I’m comfortable engaging in this conversation about digital citizenship because I admire and feel comfortable talking to people like Kate and Maha. In fact, I’m willing to say there is no one who I read that I enjoy reading more than Kate Bowles, and Maha has always been incredibly accepting to varying perspectives and challenges them in ways I don’t feel threatened by. At the same time, there are literally conversations happening at this moment that I’d love to engage in, but don’t despite them taking place in the “open” because they feel closed off to me.

The second are distinct group something that can be embraced to an extent? If so, to what extent? If we can accept that humans will naturally form in groups no matter what, is there a way to elevate this notion of being a “liaison?” That are ability to really affect change is to be a go-between rather than to eliminate the distinction? OR should you resist the temptation to begin to build your identity around a group? Are there models for understanding how you can observe, move through, appreciate, and respect groups?

I’ll stop now because I realize I’m no longer making sense and I’m getting into contentious territory here without having fully fleshed out enough of an idea to offer a solution. There are really good questions I’d like to dive into more like “Is a liaison a position of privilege?” (I suspect it is.) I’m curious about how to either identify or elevate this notion “liaison” as a way for engaging larger conversations.

Additional note: I originally published this without this paragraph but feel it necessary to add. If you interact with people within your community that are “independent” of a larger umbrella organization, please support them. It would be hard to put together a better line up of people who have influenced me to the degree in which people like Alan Levine, Bryan Mathers, Bryan Alexander, and Audrey Watters have.