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 adamcroom.com, 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: oklahomarock.com). 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.

  • I like this post so much Adam! My blog is called “is a liminal space” and I refer to myself as a liminal space often. People ask me what I mean by that and I always stumble because it is complex but one facet is feeling like I’m always in-between.

    I’m excited that you are hanging around the #digciz tag. I hope you stick around. Next week should be cool – we take on security and privacy with Kristen Eshleman and Bill Fitzgerald.

  • MBali
    Hey Adam. Thank you for this window into your memories and thoughts. So much to unpack here. I’ve tweeted out my fave quotes as I read this, but here are the thoughts that linger
    A. Is liaison a position of privilege? I believe, because I am thinking of these things this week and this summer more than usual, that the liason is like a bridge existing in a third space between others and there is at least privilege in two ways: the privilege to survive as independent, and the privilege to speak the language of multiple groups and be able to connect with them and connect them to each other. I hadn’t seen this theory before (gosh when will we ever know all the theory, ha) so I may be misinterpreting the original, but you get where I’m going? I’m thinking beyond cliques and into cultures and digital networks and our hybridity that allows us to exist in these in-between spaces (Homi Bhabha’s work).

    B. The point you made earlier about the feeling of playing other ppl’s music vs your own made me think of my presence/practice in my digital networks as playing my own music while institutionally i gotta conform to someone else’s mandate (to some extent). I remember organizing DigPedCairo and bringing Jim Groom to keynote AMICAL (an organization/consortium my university is part of) and feeling like I was having context collapse and challenging my f2f with my radical digital beliefs and practices. It gave me strength and confidence… I co-presented with Jim in front of my colleagues and challenged them with questions i would not have been successful at doing all on my own. So this goes back to, a bit, how being indie requires some reliance on community and trust and yet not losing yourself in it. Or something :) If you’re indie and you don’t find community i think your battery wears out… It’s difficult, so difficult, to be that one person in your department saying those radical things, challenging the status quo, thinking beyond, and not knowing that somewhere out there, some ppl think ur not crazy!

    I’ll stop here before this turns into a blogpost

    • Thanks Maha!

      A. Yes, we are definitely on the same wave length here. My inner struggle conversations always comes back to if it’s better to break down walls or build bridges, ya know?

      B. As somebody who just helped organize a conference for Jim, I can relate on multiple levels there. :-) I guess I’ll just say that the part missing from the story is as you put it where my battery ran out. And the fact is that unfortunately most people’s battery do. Your challenge is a valid one which is “is it personally sustainable?” (That’s at least how I’m interpreting your though. And I question it too.

      • MBali
        hi again Adam – good question re breaking down walls and building bridges. I’d say both, but we don’t always have the capacity for both, do we? I do know that in my line of digital activism, I try to do both – dismantle privilege AND build bridges… which might be the delicate balance I’ve found which you refer to as accepting varying perspectives, challenging things, without making you feel threatened (I was just telling you on Twitter it’s a balance I’ve been working on intentionally to improve my chances at getting listened to)
        • Yes, I guess I’ve become a bit worn living in an environment where I haven’t seen a lot of coming together on issues but rather an increasing polarization. I guess my line of thinking has become along the lines of if silos will continue to exist is there a way to build lines of communication that are productive. It’s an approach in which I’m trying to find ANY positive way to approach my own situation living in an environment where my opinions are literally less than 2% by contemplating bridge building.

          And I’ve totally found myself before both questioned and bettered by you in ways that have always made me rethink or think deeper about my own positions. None of which have ever felt threatening. So, yes, you’ve definitely found a balance that works (at least for me!) :-)

  • There really is so much to think about here. You have turned the question of identity to one of process, which I like very much, and I agree with Autumm that this connects liaison to liminality. What this does for me is unsettle the binary of guest and host that fuses to become hospitality, and introduces a third figure.

    Now I’m thinking about T S Eliot who includes this figure in The Wasteland:

    “Who is the third who walks always beside you?
    When I count, there are only you and I together
    But when I look ahead up the white road
    There is always another one walking beside you
    Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
    I do not know whether a man or a woman
    -But who is that on the other side of you?”

    Eliot explained that he took this figure from the account of an explorer (probably Shackleton): “it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.”

    What interests me is that in models of hospitality, the guest and the host each have things to do. But this third figure, I think, is the storyteller who continually improvises connection without the resources of either. That to me is what you do in this post, you really model how storytelling itself is essential to the practice of digital hospitality, but it belongs to the third figure, the figure composed of both and neither, the one between.

    Sorry if this is messy, but I really loved reading this post. It took me all day, between meetings and running around, I just kept coming back.

    • Wow, thanks for sharing that T S Eliot quote. I had never read that before but it really speaks to me.

      I just referenced this on Twitter but this conversation also has me thinking about Cooley’s looking glass self concept. I’ve came back to this quote many times:

      ““I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

      And it makes me wonder, to your point about the third person, about how we collectively share our own identities.

  • dogtrax
    I appreciated the story aspect (and your music theme and journey was a bonus) to set the stage, so to speak, for your thoughts on space and technology and engagement. Lots to ponder here.
    I was struck by your observation that people might come into an open space at different points of time, and through different keyholes (my term, not yours), but seek out common people to organize around (ie, hashtags). This can create a sense of affinity but also a closed network in an open space.
    Many of the folks you mention in your post often “hang out” together (I have my own folks, too, and some of the folks here are my friends there).
    How do we — or, do we — open up those conversations to more people and more viewpoints, keeping the conversation constructive and positive? A key question in this digital age.
    Peace (and keep rocking)
    • Thanks. And I felt honored to get the close reading graphics you put on Twitter. Too cool!

      Yes, totally connecting with the points you make on hanging out around hashtags. I struggle with it a lot because I do want to engage in conversations but also don’t necessarily always want be seen has simply hanging out in public. Struggled in college with the similar situation. In undergrad, a lot of social events are structured around fraternities. I longed for the communal side but didn’t want to have to identify with a specific house in order to partake.

  • Simon Ensor
    I can relate very much to this idea of bridging groups, never really belonging but that being alright.

    I wonder how many people in these conversations are on the edge in this respect.

    Certainly from the research that I have done into willingness to connect and literacies to enable connection – invariably the people already have reasons to be bridges into other communities.

    This may often be but not necessarily because of privilege or be a form of privilege.

    • Thanks Simon! There’s another term that I didn’t touch on but is also worth exploring, and that’s “isolate.” I tend to overly focus on the positive nature of the possibility to be a bridge, but there’s are also those who end up isolated from the conversation, or–as you put it– on the edge. It’s here that I start to really understand the privilege of both being of group or the bridge between groups. Thanks for reminding me to mention that as well.