Unexpected Social Catalysts

by Chris Kenton on December 18, 2006

This is odd, but fascinating. I’m camping out at my favorite wifi hotspot, the Coffee Roasters in San Anselmo. Just catching up on blogs and news. There’s a pretty constant background buzz of conversation and music that offers a pleasant flavor of neighborhoody white noise. Suddenly one thread of conversation rises above the rest, and then becomes a shouting match. A woman is standing at the front door shouting F-yous at the cashier. There’s an odd moment when everyone simultaneously realizes what’s going, every conversation ends, and all attention turns to the woman at the door. She’s nicely dressed, attractivce, and angry, continuing to shout F-yous as she exits stage left. Stunned silence. Then laughter as the cashier says, "well, Merry Christmas."

Here’s the interesting thing. As the conversation picks back up, everyone is talking about what just happened–but not to the same people they were talking to before. Everyone is now turned to connect with the person outside their original conversation to try and figure out who knows what caused the uproar. As I look around the coffee shop, I see three or four people now introducing themselves to each other while laughing and shaking their heads. What started out as an uncomfortable scene suddenly turned into a social catalyst that rearranged the operating networks in the coffee shop. A few minutes later, as I’m writing this, two of those new network connections are now heavily engaged in conversation.

It makes me think of social media, and how the online norms of social order and structure may not always be the most effective catalysts of engagement. We all lament the trolls and bashers on bulletin boards; I wonder if that shared lament is a shared experience that reorders and galvanizes new social connections.

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