Contact and Networking
In half-hearted defense of running into people
In his book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany talks about the difference between contact and networking.
Contact is repeated, random encounters in public places with people you don’t know well over the course of everyday life. Contact is the greetings you exchange with people on the street, the cute faces you make at a baby when you’re in line at the grocery store, the small talk about the weather that you make while waiting for the bus. It’s your relationship with your neighbors, the barista at your favorite coffeeshop, the regulars at your game store, or the other parents at the park.
Networking, conversely, is going to a private place in order to meet people in the hope of achieving some goal. You network at a conference to look for a job, or at a speed-dating event to find a romantic partner, or a writing workshop in order to find a publisher. Crucially, networking is done between basically similar people: no one goes to the spider fanciers’ meetup in the hopes of networking to find a programming job.
Delany’s theory is that contact is systematically undersupplied, and networking is systematically oversupplied, and this is very bad.
In a city, contact requires certain specific characteristics to thrive. You need socioeconomically diverse spaces with mixed commercial and residential uses, and which provide basic services like restaurants, public bathrooms, and small shops. Without that setup, you don’t get contact. Some of the reasons are obvious. If you can’t walk to the local restaurant, you won’t run into people you know on the way. Some of the reasons are more subtle. If there aren’t any public bathrooms, it’s a jerk move to not let a mom at the park your kids are playing at use the bathroom in your house, but you don’t want to just let any rando into your house. So you’re reluctant to talk to moms you don’t know. (Real thing!)
We don’t have contact-friendly urban spaces for an enormous number of reasons which this blog post is too small to contain. But one that is worth pointing out is that, for a lot of people, contact is scary. By its nature, contact involves interacting with people who aren’t like you: people of different classes, races, and backgrounds. Many wealthy people worry that, if they have more contact with poor people, they’ll be put at risk of crime, violence, and even disease. But not all reasons that contact is scary are bigoted. When you interact with people you don’t know, the rules can be more confusing and the people more unpredictable. Most people have had a terrifying interaction with a stranger. Traveling to a restaurant in your car is safe.
Why, then, should we build environments that allow for more contact?
Delany argues that networking is really good at spreading information. Because networking involves a lot of similar people, they know what things are relevant to people like them. Networking is a great way to find out about the latest technological developments in your field, which publishers aren’t paying their writers, or which guy everyone absolutely hates today.
Contact, conversely, is good at two things. First, it provides a safety net. In a contact-rich environment, the people you have contact with will let you borrow their phone, call an ambulance for you, or even put you up for a night if your house has burned down.
Second, contact is often better than networking at getting people the things they network for, like jobs and romantic partners and publications. There are two reasons why contact is often better than networking.
First, networking connects you to people who are similar to you, but a moment’s thought reveals that you often get things you want from people who are different from you. You might be a first-generation college student who wants advice about how to apply for college, or a professor who wants to mentor someone who hasn’t been working on their resume since preschool. You might be looking for a good plumber or construction guy or car mechanic or nanny, or alternately be a member of one of those occupations who is looking for new clients. You might be going through a bad time and need a couch to sleep on.
Contact can open up job paths for you that you’d never imagined: it’s often really hard to get a job unless you know someone who can tell you which requirements are fake and what interviewers are looking for, or who can put in a good word for you. We all know about the rich intellectual ferment that happens when writers, painters, scientists, and philosophers come together and discuss their mutual interests. And many straight people have complained about the physical places they go to meet other straight people winding up sausagefests or clambakes, even though avoiding that is the most obvious goal of such a place.
Second, it is often easier to do someone favors if you meet them via contact rather than via networking. I think Delany overstates his case here, because he’s an academic and a writer. Academia and fiction are unusually toxic environments to network in, because there are far more people who want to publish books or become tenured professors than there are slots for them. Any academic or fiction-writing networking event becomes two dozen desperate people circling everyone who even has a chance of getting them what they want, pleading on various levels of plausible deniability to be given a chance. This is unpleasant for everyone involved and makes it difficult to treat the supplicants like people or fairly assess their pitches. Conversely, if the editor meets one aspiring writer a week for half a year, it’s much easier to treat each as an individual and give them the consideration they deserve.
On the other hand, many networking events are on a more level playing field. I wouldn’t expect an environment this toxic from, say, a programming-related networking event. Tech workers and tech companies deal with each other from something much more like a position of equality.
Of course, you can position yourself in such a way that you end up getting contact that’s better for your goals. Generations of artists moved to Greenwich Village or Montmartre in part so that they could randomly run into other artists and bohemians. But there’s a fundamental difference between moving to Greenwich Village and running into other artists at the coffeeshop and attending the Young Artists’ Networking Meetup. And because contact is undersupplied, people end up doing the second thing when their goals would be better met by the first.
I admit that part of the reason I’m sympathetic to Delany’s argument that I passionately despise networking, and find contact quite pleasant. So I’m all in favor of us doing more contact. (Introverts, I know you’re shuddering at the idea of more small talk, but it’s not like networking events aren’t terrible. All options here are bad.) Certainly in my own life I’ve had much more success with contact than with networking, though I can’t rule out that that’s because I’m really really really bad at networking. I’m curious how much this matches up to other people’s experiences, and what other benefits of networking or contact they’ve identified.
One thing I’m curious about is how the Internet affects all of this. I can certainly identify contact-like dynamics (people you don’t know well that share a Discord server with you, the Tumblr mutual you never talk to but have followed for years). And parts of Twitter seem to be an inescapable networking hellscape. But Delany didn’t talk about any of this because the book came out in 1999. I’m curious about my readers’ thoughts.
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, by Samuel R. Delany. Published 1999. 240 pages. $25.
To be clear, this is marginal reasoning: no one is saying that we shouldn’t have networking at all, just that we have too much of it right now.