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Right now, the common "social setting" at an AALL conference (and I'd go out on a limb and say this is probably common at most other conferences as well) is that of the Member Reception. It can be an opening reception, or a member luncheon, or even a happy hour for smaller groups during the conference. When you think about it, receptions are really old-school social settings. These are the social settings that represent how we have networked for the past 50 years or so… maybe longer. The idea is to put similar people in a room, pump in a little music over the speaker system (live band if times are good), provide a few snacks, add a little alcohol (a lot of alcohol if times are bad), and voilà… instant networking. The whole thing's a bit unstructured, but has been the traditional method of networking and has worked fairly well. However, I don't think that this is working all that well with the newer members, and I think I know why.
I had a number of newer members tell me that they were uncomfortable in large social setting, that they hated the reception environment at conferences, and that in all honesty, they were introverts and struggle with how to work a social setting. Many of us agreed that, while it may be an overly stated stereotype of librarians, we do tend to attract introverts to the library profession (obviously, not all are, but many in the room admitted that they fit that introvert category.) However, most of same people that admitted they were introverts were very comfortable on Twitter, Facebook, Quora, LinkedIn, etc. In fact, right after the conference, many of the newer members that I talked to quickly friended me on Facebook. So why the dichotomy? Yes, shyness plays a part in this, but how can we create a better environment for networking? I think the solution is setting up social gatherings that have structure, rules, and guidelines.
What was interesting, was the common suggestion that was made to fix the social networking challenge for newer members was to set up an environment that mimicked Speed-Dating settings. Yes, this got a chuckle at first… and made many of the married members of the crowd whisper, "I don't think my husband/wife/partner would approve of me going to a speed-dating session." However, as the idea started making the rounds around the room, it started getting more and more traction, and I started understanding why this type of setting would appeal to new members. I think the primary reason that this type of session would work is because it has structure, and newer members don't have to wonder "What am I supposed to do in here? What do I do next? How do I follow up from here?"
- There are rules to follow
- It is easy (show up, follow instructions)
- It can be effective (meet far more people in the time that you would in a reception environment)
- If you like someone then you have a reason to get back in touch with them ("Friend" them)
- If you don't like someone, then at least you only have to spend a couple of minutes with them ("un-Friend them)
In a way, it is like taking the structure of online social interaction and transferring it to a real-life setting.
Even the older members would benefit from something like this. Many of us have a core set of friends that we hang out with at meetings. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but after a few years of keeping your social circles stagnant, it can get a bit stale… or can be seen by others as being a bit cliquish. Therefore, the Speed-Networking reception can help expand even the most seasoned member's social circles in an easy and fun way.
I'm not sure if we can have a Speed-Networking session set up as a stand-alone session at next year's AALL meeting in Boston, but we did have a great idea for how an informal one could be set up. One of the newer members suggested that an area in the back of the room be roped off with chairs set up for a speed-networking session for those that wanted to participate. We'll have to see if the idea gets off the ground, but I think it would be a great way to help newer members network in a way that better fits how they currently interact, and provides the structure they need to network a room.