“Connection precedes content.”  This concept appears in author and community organizer Peter Block‘s article “From Leadership to Citizenship” and is one that I believe holds great power for us as students, leaders/citizens, and educators.   In my day to day work with wonderful, passionate, student-leader-citizen-Hokies, I have often said that maybe the implications of “connection precedes content” is that we aren’t going to be able to address the complexities of health care reform until we know each other’s favorite flavor of ice cream.  At the risk of being over-dramatic, let me carry this analogy a bit further.  Ice cream flavor (or, <insert personal comfort food here>) doesn’t usually come out in your first interactions with someone and is not a typical part of having a classroom of students introduce themselves to each other.  Rather, it is the kind of detail that a seasoned friend, co-worker, or collaborator might know – the kind of detail they draw upon for a particularly difficult evening of studying, to celebrate a key success, or to bear witness to some deep hurt or sadness.  So, it is not so much the detail itself, but rather that you know it about me that is transformative.  I feel special, cared for, nurtured, when you remember me for things specific to just me.  I feel that I am valued for my uniqueness and that I am known.  When this ethic is practiced by members of a community, we start to see how I am me, you are you, and how we, collectively, are we.

So, when I think about Block’s idea “Connection Precedes Content,” I’m not advocating that we institutionalize icebreakers before every meeting… but rather that we commit to the caring environment of “authentically know and be known” that these activities and many other intentional acts attempt to create.   It may sound fluffy to you, but I urge you to try it.  Intentionally invest in a friend, classmate, neighbor, or blogger and see how you feel and what you learn. Though this might be the tip of the iceberg to the point Block is trying to make, I personally find it a great place to start.

The internet today and how it is transforming how we interact adds another dimension to this concept that I am not quite sure how to explore.  For a compelling case for how “We’ll need to rethink everything” try this

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLlGopyXT_g&w=420&h=315]

One gut-reaction might be to claim that technology is helping us “know and be known” faster.  For example, students can Facebook search classmates to more quickly link faces to names, to message for a study group, or to memorize “public facts” (of which ice cream flavor might make the list…).  The binary opposite reaction might lead us to believe that this is a false sense of “knowing” and that the “connectedness” that we perceive is all breadth and no depth.  As with much of life, this is probably not a simple true/false.  While I don’t have the expertise to offer any sort of “answer,” let me throw out an idea for you to chew on (and hopefully comment on).  I still think it might come down to individualized, intentional, investment.  I can’t authentically know or be known through basic facts on Facebook or in the 140 characters of a Tweet.  But, intentionally or unintentionally, we are spending considerable time and energy over the long haul in crafting a web-identity for ourselves.  And, deep engagement with the web-me might and vice-versa might very well help us to collaborate in a more meaningful way.  For example, you reading through this entire post and processing it has likely provided you with insights on who I am and what I believe in a way you might never have been able to as a student in 116 Burruss Hall, Dr. C’s VTCLIS12 classroom, or even in a one-on-one meeting over coffee.  I may not be able to “know you” through your tweets or your facebook profile, but what inferences would I draw if I read everything you had linked to or commented upon?  Who would I know and how accurate would it be?

Thoughts to chew on :) – I look forward to hearing from you.

(If you want to read more about some of the topics related to Block’s ideas, check out the blog http://www.abundantcommunity.com/ for some great posts to get you thinking!)

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After posting this, I read an email from Dr. C asking that we incorporate some “nuggets” from the reading (Introductions to the New Media Reader into our blog post).  Because I am still waiting for my copy of the book to arrive from amazon.com, I could only read the excerpts featured on the website.  However, they (in my mind) are directly related to the post I had already written.  Let me take a minute to draw some connections – two specifically that I find to be quite interesting.

1) from “Inventing the Medium” by Murray – she describes the work of Douglas Englebart and says “The ‘augmented institution’ as he saw it would change not into a ‘bigger and faster snail’ but would become a new species, like a cat, with new sensory abilities and entirely new powers.”  To me, I interpret this as insight into the discussion of technology and “know or be known.”  Murray’s words seem to be saying that it is not about making an old way of things better or more efficient… but rather, changing the game entirely.  So, maybe an online forum isn’t helping you and me relate quicker, but rather is changing the nature of identity and relation entirely.  Murray’s interpretation of Englebart seems to agree with Wesch’s video – “We’ll need to rethink everything.”

2) from “New Media from Borges to HTML” by Manovich – I look forward to reading the full version of the introduction since the excerpt cuts out right in the middle of “New Media versus Cyberculture” and discusses a distinction between “cultural and computing” (New Media) versus “social and networking” (Cyberculture).  This distinction is not so clear to me at the moment.  I think my hangup is that the social messages (“online identity,” “sociology and the ethnography of email usage” and other items listed as “cyberculture”) seem to send overarching cultural messages.  For example, in traveling to other countries, there is a cultural perception based on the social messages.  Our Facebook posts are telling a (possibly false) story about who we are as individuals and as a culture in ways beyond simple networking.  If this is a point that Manovich explores after the excerpt cuts off… I apologize.  I look forward to reading it when I get the book!