Friday, May 20, 2011

A network without connections.

Its been a while since I blogged by I figured its not to late to start a good habit. Per the usual, I have been traveling lots lately. At one point I was in six countries in a week, two of them unplanned but caused by the ingenuity of Africa’s airlines.  Now I am back in the US for a few weeks. This trip home I have really been struck by something - How little human interaction an American go through in a day. You can check ourselves out at a grocery store, pay for gas, take a flight, do all your shopping online and spend the day isolated by the sounds around you by an ipod or TV. Its crazy. In this world, you really don’t need people. I recently wrote on my facebook page "In this digital world, people are more "social" but interact less. Have more "friends" but fewer relationships."  Its true and I think a bit sad. We are so connected and yet so disconnected.

In Africa, there is no way you can go an hour with out human interaction. You really need everyone around you.  I need the security guard to turn on the generator, friends to know if there is any events or holidays coming up, fruit stand ladies to find fresh basil, guy on the side of the street to make my furniture, an experienced driver to find locations that have no addresses, a friends uncle to find, bargain and install a new wash machine, etc, etc. My phone is full of these phone numbers, people who can help me get things and do things.  They are my network, they are my connections.

In the developed worked, your network is digital. It’s often not knowing the right people but the right website or app.  I think it has a lot to do with how people access information and what information they trust. There is not much web content in Africa – you can’t find out where to buy anything, the best restaurants, the phone number to a plumber, etc. The internet for local things, is fairly useless. It's getting better but does not compare to your social network (not facebook :) that allows you to survive and get ahead.

Each person around you is useful or maybe useful to you, perhaps not in the moment but you realize, in the future, you will likely need them. You are incentivized to connect, to talk to everyone around you, to get there contact and make sure to stay known. The social barrier to speak to someone you don’t know almost doesn’t exist (exception is among classes).  Random people talk to me all the time, often because they want to marry me, but also because I am likely a person that has information or connections that can help them. I can strengthen their network.

I used to feel sort of odd about this - people always wanting to stay connected to me -  but not anymore. I was able to stop a plane on the tarmac because of friendly connection with an airport security official, and I got a visa for a friend in Nigeria who had previously been denied 4 times because I knew the consulate general.  It's a place of connections. Its my personal network that makes helps me make progress each day. It's a place where where each person must provide value to others to receive in return. I realize, like everyone else in Africa, it’s a world where you need each other, where the social network is not digital and the network not make of cables but people craving information, opportunity and others to help them advance.