Managing Connectivity

I’m old enough to remember what life was like before email and FAX. When I moved to California in 1977, the only way I could communicate with my family and friends was using the telephone and by sitting down and writing a letter. People felt very, very far away back in Delaware. In those days, I felt isolated and lonely for old friends I hadn’t seen or heard from in a long time. My connectivity was slow and sparse.

Contrast that to today when my connectivity is very fast and furious. I have over 840 “friends” on Facebook. Some of these people were kids I went to grade school with. Many are UU ministerial colleagues across the world. A number of them are my wife Philomena’s huge extended family. I can virtually visit with old friends at any time by checking out their Facebook time line.

Like many of you, I connect with many people using email. I’m also on Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, and have tried other emerging social networking sites. I’ve got 50 meditation buddies who use the same meditation timer (Insight Timer) application for my smart phone. I exchange a couple of supportive messages with them in the morning after my meditation. And then there are the face to face relationships I have within circles of Unitarian Universalism, the Capital Region, of course FUUSA and then Buddhist and meditation connections.

I’m similar to many people younger than I am who are even more widely connected. At any moment I could reach out to probably virtually touch a 1000 different people. And 100’s of people every day are striving to get my eyes on their emails, status updates, and alerts.

It can all be just a little overwhelming. And it only seems to multiply. I remember 15 years ago feeling overwhelmed by just the email I was getting. The idea I could add to that seemed unthinkable. And yet I’m checking (briefly) other social networking sites pretty regularly.

So for many of us, the challenge isn’t so much getting connected as managing the vast networks of connection we already have and making room for new relationships and connections.

One of the valuable lessons I learned from community organizing was to differentiate public and private relationships. We can only sustain a small number of intimate private relationships with a spouse, children, extended family, and close friends. These are the people who can call you up in the middle of the night and you’ll willingly take their call. Most of my Facebook “friends” do not fall into this category.

Whereas we can only have a small number of close private friends because of the time it takes to maintain these kinds of personal ties, we can have many, many public friends. Many of the relationships we have with each other at FUUSA fall into this category. We know some of each other’s personal story. We’re happy to help each other out on a project for the congregation. We might even offer some support to each other. But the level of expectation of personal support from the relationship is limited. Understanding the distinction between public and private relationships can be every helpful to contain the social burden added when widening one’s social network.

A useful tool that is essential for managing the huge amount of communication that comes with having a wide network of connection is filtering. I have over 100 email filters that sorts my email into different mailboxes. That allows me to follow threads of conversations in sequential emails in that mailbox. I dip in and out of these mailboxes, monitoring discussions using subject lines and key words so I filter out what doesn’t interest me or doesn’t require my immediate attention.

One of the most important lessons though of electronic communication is when not to use it and pick up the phone. When I feel some strong feelings come up in response to an electronic message and am tempted to respond passionately to it, I now know to stop, take a breath and look for a non-electronic way to respond. Electronic communication can be so easily misunderstood or the emotional tenor so easily misjudged.

Overall, I am much happier being highly connected as long as I take control of moderating how much I do and when I do it. Self-discipline makes the difference.