Consequential strangers are the people with whom we enjoy casual relationships in our neighborhoods, workplaces and third places that can be as vital to our health, wealth, wisdom and well-being as our family and closest friends (or what I like to call speed dial friends). According to a new book by Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman, Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter ... But Really Do, these networks - or social convoys - of acquaintanceships include people who are often able to open us up to more opportunities than we may fully appreciate. Many of these people on the periphery, our weak ties, are ready, willing and able to connect us with information, jobs and other resources we need to realize our full potential.
The extensively researched and highly accessible book starts out by reviewing Mark Granovetter's seminal study on The Strength of Weak Ties, first published in the 1973 (and revisited in 1983), which demonstrated that people outside our innermost social circles were the most likely to help us find jobs and mobilize our communities. They continue on with research published in 2003 by Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman on the strength of weak ties abetted by technology in connecting and mobilizing physical communities, Neighboring in Netville: How the Internet Supports Community and Social Capital in a Wired Suburb, as well as research by Robert Wuthnow (After the Baby Boomers) that explores the different kinds of groups outside of our neighborhoods - religious, self-help and activity-oriented - in which consequential strangers seek and provide assistance to each other.
In addition to the academic research reviewed in the book, the authors include a number of other stories highlighting the importance of consequential strangers. For example, Karla Lightfoot, an enthusiastic member of the Ladies Who Launch entrepreneur network, has achieved personal and professional success due, in part, to her delight in the interactions and connections with the people she encounters in a variety of contexts. Lightfoot, who the authors describe as an acquaintanceship artist, extols (and demonstrates) the benefits of being more open to serendipitous opportunities: "It's about sharing whatever you have and people being able to ask for what they need". Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University (with over 38,000 employees and 80,000 students spanning 24 campuses), spends the first week of the school year living in a freshman dorm in order to expand his network of consequential strangers, noting that breaking down barriers can help leaders become more effective. Sue Ellen Cooper, founder of the Red Hat Society, discovered that assembling a group of consequential strangers to engage in a "small act of rebellion" - wearing purple outfits and red hats to lunch (as shown in photo to the left) - helped unleash "their most carefree, playful selves". This group of women over fifty who gather for "fun, friendship, freedom and fulfillment" has become the world's largest social networking community for women, having grown to 40,000 members in a little over ten years.
The authors cite psychological studies by Marilyn Brewer (who pioneered optimal distinctiveness theory) that differentiate between a personal self that seeks distinction, and a social self that seeks connection and belonging. They note other studies that demonstrate the power and prevalence of social mirrors, and the role of audiences and witnesses in the perception and construction of our complex selves: "We see ourselves in others' eyes". [The image to the right is a depiction of one of the earliest articulations of this concept, the "looking glass self", by Charles Cooley in 1902.] Consequential strangers help us stretch beyond the relatively rigid boxes that the people who have known us the longest - our family and close friends - often put us into. Through interacting with people who do not know us as well, we are more free to experiment with ourselves, and less likely to have our new behaviors and roles reflected back to us by people who object, "But that's not like you!".
Places and groups that offer support for redefining or extending ourselves might be thought of as self-construction zones. This support is, I suspect, a large part of the power of entrepreneur networks - where people are experimenting with new businesses - colleges and universities - where people are experimenting with new fields of learning - and social networking groups - where people are experimenting with new ways of having fun (not that I mean to imply that business, learning and fun are mutually exclusive).
Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that
All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
One corollary may be that every consequential stranger represents a lab partner, and the places we interact with consequential strangers represent living laboratories.
Some of the most productive living laboratories are coffeehouses, prototypical third places where people may be especially receptive to serendipitous encounters with consequential strangers. I first encountered Blau and Fingerman's book in my research into the social aspects of coffeehouses, much of which is summarized in my earlier post on conversation, community and culture at Starbucks. The book includes an entire chapter on Being Spaces: places "where a stranger can become a consequential stranger" that feature "an atmosphere and activities that inspire us to connect". The authors do talk about coffeehouses, of course, but extend the discussion of sociable spaces to include diners, banks, supermarkets, gyms and other physical environments that are seeking to integrate communal and commercial benefits by creating "human watering holes" that promote the "linger longer effect".Toward the end of the chapter, the authors extend the notion of being spaces from the physical world to the online world. They profile Meetup.com, a web site where people can make plans online to connect offline with others based on shared interests and activities. Throughout the book, they make references to online communities and social networking sites. Interestingly, while they make numerous references to Facebook, it seems to me that Twitter is the online platform most conducive to the transformation of strangers into consequential strangers and acquaintances.
Others have suggested that Twitter is the virtual coffeeshop ... or that Twitter is more than just an offline coffeeshop. The opportunity to "follow" people on Twitter without requiring that they reciprocate, as is the case in most other social networking platforms (e.g., the bidirectional "friends" links in Facebook and "contacts" links in LinkedIn), makes it easier for people to progress through the "initiating" and "experimenting" stages of self-disclosure. For me, at least, Facebook is a place for friends, while Twitter is a place for cultivating connections to consequential strangers.
Jason Simon (@CoffeeShopChat), a friend with whom I first established a consequential acquaintanceship via Twitter, recently sent me a link to an eBook, Twittertales, a collection of short stories by "Conversation Agent" Valeria Maltoni. Each story - which are all longer than 140 characters, but less than two pages - represents a consequential acquaintanceship established via Twitter that led to "a friendship, project, career opportunity, [or] meaningful and purposeful new something". Although Maltoni doesn't use the term, I believe these are all compelling examples of what Blau and Fingerman call consequential strangers.
I will finish off with a relevant excerpt from of one of the stories. In "Mint, the Derby and a New Friend", Michael Winn shares an exchange on Twitter which leads to the realization that a person he had thought of as a "complete stranger" was really a consequential stranger who was transformed from an online "follower" (or, more precisely, "followee") into a real world friend through a simple act of kindness:
Here is [a] series of Twitter status updates from Friday between myself (TallyDigitalBiz) and RickOpp whom I have never met in real life, but follow on Twitter:
@RickOpp 2:33 PM May 1st from web: about to go on a mint run — essential for juleps for Derby Day and mojitos for post-golf @ poolside Sunday.
@TallyDigitalBiz (2:54 PM May 1st from web in reply to RickOpp):let me know where you find the mint “goods” i went to three stores and struck out, had to settle for just the mixer:
@RickOpp 3:33 PM May 1st (from TwitterBerry in reply to @TallyDigitalBiz): Tharpe Publix was out & produce guy said other Pubs may b out 2. Got last 2 pkgs @ Tharpe WinnDixie. Try calling others.
@TallyDigitalBiz (3:39 PM May 1st from TweetDeck): Enjoying free WiFi and a black and white at Starbucks on North Monroe
@RickOpp 3:46 PM MAY 1st via Direct Message Raise ur hand & wave right now.
At 3:46 PM on Friday May 1st while sitting in Starbucks on North Monroe, I hear a friendly voice ask; Are you Michael Winn? I reply, yes. Reaching out to shake hands, I am handed a small package of fresh mint. Stunned, I have just experienced the incredible power of connection between Twitter and real world friendships. RickOpp, who I personally know now as Rick Oppenheim, have a Twitter story that will be told over and over.
In less than 73 minutes, two complete strangers found a common interest. By the simple spirit of generosity and hospitality, two people now have a keystone to building something beyond Twitter updates, mint, and a 50 to 1 shot winning the Derby.