Recently, a friend of mine asked for advice on how to build relationships. She’s a new mom, a gifted community organizer, and an incredible party organizer, someone who feels alive on a dance floor and who has beautifully integrated that truth with her life as a parent. All that was before the pandemic hit.
She, her husband (who moonlights as a DJ) and their one year old son have to started throwing killer dance parties on Zoom. Amazingly some of the energy was still there, a joy and release that was more needed than ever. But there was also a strange moment of emptiness when the call shut down, a sense that something vital to the experience was absent.
For the past 20 years I’ve been working as a community organizer and software developer on the subtleties of building relationships through technology. From supportive networks of queer youth to academic research labs to congressional campaigns, I’ve studied the ways that online and offline experiences combine to create a kind of relational ecology, an ecosystem of interactions that allow some sorts of relationship to flourish and make others impossible.
It’s not true that online experiences are intrinsically worse than offline ones, for queer kids looking for a way to explore their identities an online environments can be ideal. It’s just that most of our online environments aren’t that well suited to form or deepen relationships. To understand how online and offline experiences differ, we need to examine the relational ecology of the dance parties that my friend hosted before the pandemic.
Consider the Dance Party
Think of a dance party as an ecosystem, say a pond in the middle of a forest. The pond isn’t just one environment, it’s a bunch of different zones nested closely together. You’ve got the open water, the muck at the bottom, the air above it buzzing with flies, the plants and tree roots by the bank. As life evolves in the pond it learns to flow seamlessly between these zones to lay its eggs, to feed, to rest. Very few organisms stick to just one zone, which is part of the reason why habitats with many zones in close proximity (like coral reefs) tend to support more life than those which have fewer (like the open ocean).
Now, imagine a nascent friendship developing at our dance party over the course of an evening. You arrive after a stressful day at work, check your coat, and immediately start scanning the room for your friends. You find them chatting at a side table, two people you know and three you don’t, and pull them onto the floor. You dance, solo, in circles, pairing off, until one of the new people asks if you want a drink. You join her on a walk to the bar and get to talking, turns out she’s into the a breed of climate activism that you’ve been wanting to understand recently. You take your drinks back to the table to keep talking, joking about obscure energy legislation, when you’re rejoined by your friends and the conversation switches to embarrassing childhood moments. As the evening wraps up you tell your new friend how excited you are to get coffee and learn more, she seems like just the kind of person you’d like in your life.
Notice that the dance floor, the thing that you and your friends showed up for, played a relatively small role in what made your new friendship possible. You needed an excuse to get in a one on one conversation (the bar), a way for the people you know to cluster together (the tables), a place to get your body moving and your endorphins flowing (the dance floor), a way to zero in on an interesting conversation once it was possible (the tables again), a way to share vulnerability (your friends joining.) All of these things together make for a powerful start to a friendship, but they would have been much harder if any one of these contexts had been isolated. If you’d arrived after your stressful workday just to a table with your friends, or just to a one-on-one at a bar with a stranger, or even just to a dance floor the friendship would never have gotten off the ground. Putting a dance floor in isolation (as my friend does on her Zoom calls) is the equivalent of replacing a pond with a fish tank.
Relational ecology is about a lot more than just making friends. Highly relational environments are where new friendships happen, but they’re also where existing relationships deepen, where professional opportunities happen, where we learn new things about ourselves. Certain environments tend to be better than others at fostering relationships, whether those are relationships with a broad community, a partner, or ourselves.
I like to imagine our social world as filled with these ecologies. We’re all different social organisms who thrive in different niches: some connect powerfully in dance parties, others prefer book clubs. Some thrive in far-flung social networks, others focus on deep relationships with themselves and a few others. Some niches tend to support more life than others, the coral reefs and rain forests of the relational world, though the deserts and ice caps also have organisms that feel at home.
The reason that virtual spaces often feel awkward isn’t just that they lack the fidelity of in-person interaction (incredible relationships have formed with nothing but the written word), it’s that they often lack the ability to switch contexts. Tech platforms tend to want all engagement to happen on their platform, and platforms tend to only be good at one or two things. To torture my metaphor a bit, a tech platform is more like an industrial farm than a pond in a forest. Every component of its ecology is AI-optimized multiple times per second to drive up a few key metrics, usually those related to engagement. YouTube wants you to watch more videos, Facebook wants you to engage more with posts, and so on.
Say that the natural evolutionary path of a relationship involves a mix of interactions in different contexts: meeting someone in a Facebook group, connect more deeply in a Zoom call, get excited about their Pinterest boards and then start cooking together on Facetime (in non-pandemic times, this relationship would also be jumping between online and offline contexts). Each one of those transitions is, from the perspective of the platform in question, a disaster to be avoided at all costs. Facebook wants to keep you as far away from Pinterest as possible, Zoom would be horrified to learn that you abandoned them for Facetime. When two people start connecting well in one platform there’s no gentle affordance suggesting that their connection could deepen somewhere else. It’s as if you met your new friend on the dance floor, but the dance floor did everything in its power to block you from the bar. It noticed you were about to leave and AI-optimized your favorite songs to keep you dancing. It moved the bar down the block. It moved the tables to a cafe down the street. Sure you can technically still go there, but you’re not going to switch contexts that dramatically with someone you’ve just met. Instead of a pond, you’re in a series of fish tanks.
Which is why, when my friend hosts a Zoom dance party, it always feels like there’s both something there and something missing. Relationships almost always require transitions: between stimulating environments and calm ones, between big groups filled with new possibilities and smaller niches where those possibilities can get explored. There are few great ways to do this online today, it’s not the problem that the business model of the internet has been trying to solve. But in the context of the global pandemic there is an opportunity to change that.
Relational Ecology in Practice
The people building technology aren’t interested in constructing these ecologies (unless they can own every scrap of them), so we have to. If you’re creating a space for people to connect online, think about:
How to create many right-sized conversations
In my experience, any conversation with more than 6 people on Zoom becomes awkward. It either becomes focused on turn-taking, or a few voices dominate. The ideal size is often around 4. If you want people to engage in deep storytelling, it’s 2. Figure out how to create spaces where people can connect deeply.
Larger spaces are good for people to explore what’s going on and discover which conversations they want to dive into, so design them with that in mind. Use large spaces to set just enough context for people to have something juicy to talk about, then let them explore and connect on their own.
How people transition into and out of conversations
Zoom breakout rooms are a decent start, but they’re clunky in non-professional situations. People can’t easily control which room they do into or see what the different rooms are, every needs to be in a room for the same amount of time, and rooms end with an awkward 60 second countdown. Platforms like Icebreaker.video do a much better job at paired conversation, giving people a comfortable transition in and out and a nice way to know how much time they have to talk, but it’s still a fit for fairly structured dialogue, like a workshop or speed dating. For conversations that people can organically join and leave on their own, the way that they do in an organic social space, my current favorite is theonline.town, which uses a map of a virtual space to let people cluster and transition the way that they would in real life.
Ideally, we’d be able to transition between conversations in virtual space as seamlessly as we do in real space. We’d be able to scan a room and get a sense of who is there and what’s being discussed, have a series of short conversations, exit small talk with the virtual equivalent of going to get a drink, and so on. This is an important piece of relational ecology that has been largely ignored by online social platforms.
How people understand what’s going on and where to go when they first arrive
Virtual events are overwhelming. People need the equivalent of finding a friend in the corner, or finding something that’s deeply aligned with their interest and checking it out or they risk becoming a passive, arelational spectator. This is easier when everyone shows up at the same time (which never happens at a good party.) It may be good to deputize people to “work the door” and proactively message people when they arrive to get them oriented, or to have some place that they can go to to scope out what’s happening the way that someone might when they first enter a crowded room. The only tools I’ve seen for doing this, like hop.in assume very structured events
Good hosts will greet people when they enter, give them context about what’s going on, and broker introductions to one or two people so that guests can get started with interesting conversation. This orientation and routing work is largely unaddressed by current software, but can be recreated with thoughtful online facilitation.
How people get into their bodies
This is extremely important, especially in a world where people are trapped inside and spending more time than ever on screens. If you don’t have an actual dance party (and you should consider it) find ways to encourage people to get up, stretch, or drink water. Get them to draw on paper and show it to the screen, do yoga together, or otherwise disengage from the usual body posture of online video. People disconnected from their bodies don’t feel emotions well, which means we don’t notice when a powerful opportunity for conversation and connection comes our way. Without embodiment all events blur into a kind of gray paste, with it people can find things that ignite their passions and scurry off to connect around them, which is what you want.
Embodiment isn’t just about movement. Think of a physical space: people can sit, stand or lean, there’s food and drink, party games, lots of different ways to situate and sustain one’s body. Virtual yoga and gym classes are beginning to experiment with these sorts of shared physical experiences, but there’s huge opportunity in using technology to coordinate the social and the physical.
How people know which version of themselves to present
How someone shows up at your event determines how they’ll connect. Sometimes one part of ourselves (our work self) may have all the connection it needs but another part (the creative side) could feel starved. Inviting people to bring out an underconnected side of themselves helps to create a room hungry for connection.
Physical spaces will use a wide range of queue to show people what version of themselves to bring to a space: professional, creative, sexy or spiritual. For a virtual event all you have is a graphic and invite text that people may or may not have read. If you want people to show up as something other than their default work/afterwork selves you’ll need to give them lots of queues. Think about how to open, use props and encourage others to do the same. Think about music, costumes, meditation or primal screams. Shared singing on video calls is (unfortunately) a nightmare, so have one person sing and everyone else sing along on mute. Fill your space with activities other than people talking at the camera. If they are talking, model the kinds of stories you want at the beginning (and recruit plants to reinforce the modelling.)
How people can hook up after
The real magic of relationship building doesn’t happen at your event, it happens in the conversations that happen because of your event. Think about everything that goes into these conversations: the discovery process where people find one another, the small conversation that they need to be in to actually hear one another speak, the embodiment that they need to realize that there’s a potential conversation there that’s definitely worth having, the corner that they run off to to have it. And, crucially, they need a way to stay connected after the event. Some people will know to ask for contact information and follow up, but many good connections get lost in this step. Try to create time and space in your event that’s specifically about followup. One great way to do this is to create a culture of gratitude: have a moment for people to share gratitude for someone else whose words/creative work/dance moves touched them. This often leads to a followup.
Surprisingly few virtual meeting platforms have good affordances for this. There should be an easy button in Zoom to send someone your contact details (as opposed to PMing them in a chat that will disappear when the call ends). It should be easy to identify people who you want to follow up with, remember where you met them and what you want to talk to them about, and follow up later without the use of a heavyweight CRM like SalesForce. Again, this is an important relational problem that remains largely unaddressed.
We’re still a long way from a good virtual dance party, but people are innovating fast. The most powerful innovation is coming from people who know how to bring people together, not necessarily people who know code. If there was ever a time when social isolation threatens us, a time when spaces for connection are needed, it’s now.