I don’t have a network, I have friends.

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There are many fans of networking in my professional association, some more rabid than others. What I’ve noticed lately is that the most rabid fans of all tend to be the ones who you have to introduce yourself to year after year at conference because they can’t remember all the people they’ve met. I’m terrible with names, but usually when I see a person for the second time I have some inkling that we’ve met before. There’s some people I have to introduce myself to over and over and over, and I’m thinking their network isn’t very useful if they can’t remember the people in it at best, and if they actively insult people at worst.

I like to network, but mostly I approach the whole business with an eye towards making new friends. They don’t have to be the know-all-your-secrets type of friends, and I don’t need 500 BFFs, but I’d like a connection that goes slightly deeper than a handshake and a Linkedin request, and then a repeat of the same next year. I’d rather do that with fewer people, and build a high-quality network of friends, than try to amass contacts who I know nothing about. It seems to me that when you focus on the quality of your relationships, you’ll be able to leverage them better than when you focus on quantity. Sure, you might have 700 Linkedin connections, or 2,000 Twitter followers, but if you put out a call for help will any of them respond? Will you get a quality response from people you’ve learned enough about to trust? If you have a smaller network of friends, they’ll work a little bit harder for you when you need them to, and vice versa. If they’re the type of people who also make networks of friends, they’ll introduce you to those people more readily, and you’ll know you can count on those people too.

Some people in my professional association also have this little love affair going with Twitter. Many espouse it as a way to build your network, and I know it can be, but without actually meeting and speaking to each other in-person and forging some kind of deeper connection it’s all very superficial and shaky. I think Twitter has its uses and I also think it’s ridiculous, but even if I didn’t have that personal conflict I would know that it doesn’t come close to a chat over drinks. What I do like about Twitter is being able to get a small glimpse into the life of a person I have met or might meet at conference, and that can prompt a conversation leading to a deeper connection. But I’m not sold on Twitter as the best medium for this as people tend to keep things impersonal over there. And let’s not even talk about Linkedin, the most BORING and impersonal unsocial networking site ever. I know a lot of people have various problems with Facebook but I find it to be the ideal tool for building deeper connections. I would so much rather be Facebook friends with someone I just met at conference than have them follow me on Twitter. I always learn something about them on Facebook that makes me like them even more, and makes our connection stronger. The connections become more personal and more real. But then again, I have an exceptional group of quality Facebook friends. I add people who I meet, who I like, and who I remember.

I had no idea that networking is considered by some to be a bad thing, until somebody mentioned that to me at a conference several years ago. I bet its bad reputation comes from those rabid networkers, who abuse the whole idea of making connections. In my world, networking is so much fun that conference time doesn’t even feel like work time. (Don’t tell my boss). It isn’t rabid networking or Twitter that keeps me coming back to conference year after year even though I pay for most of my own travel expenses now. It’s my friends. And there’s always room for more.

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On participation etiquette, and farm conferencing.

Many years ago I interned with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, when they were installing computers in public libraries across the US. The job of the interns was to visit all the libraries in our area which had already received installations, and provide maintenance for the computers and supplemental training to the library staff. Since this was back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the internet, the training we offered was really basic, along the lines of Beginning Microsoft Word. I was really inexperienced as a presenter much less as a trainer, so audience management was a little beyond me at that point. I was about to give a presentation on Intermediate Excel at one library when a librarian approached me and explained that she knew next to nothing about computers but wanted to sit in. She said she would keep her questions to herself since she knew she was in over her head, so I agreed to let her participate.

She did not keep her questions to herself. She monopolized my time for the whole presentation, constantly asking me basic questions on subjects that the rest of the audience was already well versed in. It made the presentation really painful for them, and it wasted their time. It was a nice little lesson in managing your audience, as I started to learn how to politely defer her questions as the session progressed. Encountering people like her makes me wonder about the etiquette of participating in something you know nothing about.

This issue reared its head again recently when I attended the annual California Small Farm Conference. Although I’m not a farmer I am fascinated by the agriculture industry and enjoy learning everything I can about it. This is the third year I’ve attended this conference, and I find the programming to be really valuable. I learn a lot about the industry, and I always come away with some little tidbits I can apply on a very small scale on my farmlet.

The audience at the farm conference varies depending on where it’s held. It seems that anytime it’s held within driving distance of a major metropolis it attracts a zillion wanna-bes both young and old. That’s fine, and everyone needs to start somewhere, but it makes the issue of participation etiquette or lack thereof really noticeable. Some of the questions asked during the farm tours and during the workshop sessions were so far below basic they were almost offensive. Offensive because it wastes everyone’s time, and takes time away from other questions from people who are already at the same level as the presenter and want to move on. In some cases it was pretty clear that the people asking those very basic questions did not do any preliminary research or reading, but expect to absorb all the information they need to start a successful, profitable farm from scratch simply by attending a few workshops and networking with each other. As a librarian I completely understand not knowing where to start in your information-gathering process, but then the questions at that point should be a little different. “What resources should I consult to find the information I need?” is very different than asking the presenter to explain their topic plus everything that precedes it. It’s a little bit like that question every librarian has been asked, from people dubious that we need to know anything more than how to use a barcode scanner and date stamp, about what we learned in library school. And we all say sure, I’ll condense my 2 year Master’s degree and internships for you in 15 minutes, no problem, right?

A session I attended on grafting vegetables was one of the best examples of how the wanna-bes hijack the presentations at this particular conference. The presentation and presenter were amazing. Just two years ago I was at a presentation at the Heirloom Exposition on grafted tomatoes, and the presenter told the audience that we would NEVER be able to graft our own vegetables because unlike the relatively simple, easy, and standard practice used on woody plants like fruit trees, the technique for vegetables was far too complicated for the home gardener to master. In this presentation, the presenter walked us through it step-by-step, and then let us go at it with a flat of Green Zebra scion and Ace rootstock. The presenter allowed questions during her presentation, and about halfway through it all went off the rails, when a newbie asked what rootstock is. Then another newbie asked why the industry throws away the top of the rootstock and couldn’t they just plant it out? Then another newbie asked what verticillium wilt is and another newbie asked what roostock the presenter recommended, for nothing in particular. And yeah I know this might not mean anything to you if you know nothing about agriculture, but we were at a farm conference for goodness sakes. In a session on grafting vegetables. Which you really don’t need to attend if you don’t know what verticillium wilt is. The presenter handled it masterfully, but came away with a very skewed perception of the audience and the conference. She kept repeating over and over “oh wow, I really made a lot of assumptions about your level of knowledge, and I’m sorry about that, let me back up…” while half of us are sitting there wishing she’d go faster. We didn’t attend a session on grafting vegetables to find out what rootstock is.

I’m fascinated in a way, by the people who hijack presentations in this manner. It happens in any industry I’m sure, anytime you bring a group of people together to learn something at an intermediate or advanced level. Watching it from the audience makes me very mindful of controlling it as a presenter, although I don’t often get the opportunity to teach to an intermediate crowd. And it makes me appreciative of presenters and teachers who can handle this situation masterfully, as so many of the presenters and moderators at this conference did. I think they’re getting used to that wanna-be crowd.

All gripes aside, the conference was wonderful. Inspiring and fascinating as usual, and I brought home practical knowledge for my farmlet on native habitat for beetles and lizards, grafted tomatoes, leased land, and food processing. I hardly took any pictures since the farm tour day was cold and gloomy, but I did manage to capture the important things: baby lambs, farm cats, a farm studio, fascinating warning labels, interesting interplantings, and purty flowers.

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