You can think of connections as analogous to the packaging that wraps a product you buy at the store. The underlying “product” is the activity, or work, you want to coordinate with someone; the packaging is the connection between you.

How Connections “Wrap” Our Engagement

One of the most important insights about engagement is that it is as much about action as it is about relationship. It’s about building relationships and putting those relationships to work towards some common end.

This post builds on last week’s point that connections are not the same as relationships. Today, I’ll try to make the case that it is through our connections that we are able to link our work with others. It’s because of this that understanding connections is so critical to understanding engagement.

Connection is the means by which people coordinate ends.

Connecting our purpose through…connection

Connections are not relationships but they do act as bridges for our relationships; bridges that enable us to coordinate our actions with others. They’re what enable me as an independent, autonomous agent to coordinate my activities with you – another independent, autonomous agent.

You can think of connections as analogous to the packaging that wraps a product you buy at the store. The underlying “product” is the activity, or work, you want to coordinate with someone; the packaging is the connection between you.

Let me illustrate with two examples:

When I send you an email trying to convince you to join some project, we’re really operating on two levels. At one level, I’m composing and sending an email and you’re opening and reading it. That’s the level of connection – the packaging. What’s happening at a deeper level is that I’m actually trying to persuade you to do something; to join me on a project. That’s the task embedded in our connection – the product that’s wrapped in the packaging. Convincing you to join the project is the purpose that underlies our email connection.

When my friend Tom buys a newspaper at the corner store he exchanges a dollar bill for some sheets of folded paper with some ink on it. That exchange is the connection level. The deeper level – the purpose behind Tom’s investing his hard-earned cash, not to mention his time and attention into that paper is that he’s trying to keep up with world events. The newspaper’s staff, for its part, is engaging Tom in its underlying purpose: keeping readers informed (while earning a little circulation and ad revenue in the process).

Let’s take that picture of a relationship and connection from my last post. The red square in the center is the connection – the packaging. It’s what someone could easily see if they were to observe me typing an email to you.

Figure 1. "A" and "B" having a connection.

Zoom in on the red square connection and what we see nested inside it is its deeper purpose: the ends we are trying to coordinate through the connection. That yellow diamond is what I’m actually writing about in my email to you – it’s me convincing you to join a project. You wouldn’t know that from just seeing me typing on the computer. No, you’d have to have a deeper look to know what I’m writing about – to understand my purpose.

Figure 2. The underlying purpose of the connection.

Not all connections lead to shared purpose.

Just because we exchange a connection doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to coordinate our actions towards some mutually beneficial end. You might read my email, and even reply to it, without agreeing to join my project. My friend Tom may never end up reading, let alone even thinking about, the stories in that newspaper he bought.

In fact, the vast majority of connections we have these days fail to engage people in shared purpose. The volume of exchanges is simply too great; and every day our increasingly networked world makes it harder and harder to keep up. In fact, as a society, we’ve had to get increasingly good at at saying “no” as the volume of requests for connection and action accelerates.

An online activist can have a successful campaign when 20% of recipients open an email and just 3% respond to its request for action. With a large enough base, the email can generate significant activity for the campaign, but the fact remains that even in a relatively successful case, the vast majority of attempted connections still fail; either because they don’t actually connect (i.e. the email is never opened) or because it simply fails to generate a response. This isn’t a judgement about the merits of online activism; it’s just making the point that most connections today don’t actually lead to shared purpose.

This ability to say “no” in response to requests for our time, attention and resources is critical to our ability to maintain our autonomy – and sanity – as individual human beings. As frustrating as that may be for those of us trying to engage others in our work, it is today’s underlying reality and any realistic approach to understanding engagement needs to be firmly rooted in this truth.

Wrapping up this connection

In future posts, I’ll explore some of the factors that impact our likelihood of saying “no” (and “yes”) to requests for connection and action. Spoiler alert: relationships play a key role here, as does the relative complexity of the task we put forth for engagement.

For now, I’ll end by exposing a little of my underlying purpose in this connection with you.

Nearly 600 years ago, the printing press revolutionized the communications infrastructure of society. The books, newspapers and pamphlets that this new technology unleashed enabled a whole new set of connections between people. But those connections were just the packaging. The kernels inside those connections were actually far more interesting. Democracy, freedom, liberty and the hundreds of other beautiful ideas that later blossomed in the Enlightenment all rose to our collective awareness wrapped, to a large extent, in the packaging of the various connections made possible by the printing press.

Today, a similar revolution in communications is underway. As with the last one, it will take some time before its seeds grow into whatever form they will eventually take. It is my belief, however, that these new connections – like those before it – hold tremendous promise for re-wiring society in ways that lead to a better world.

My purpose here, in this connection with you, is to build the partnerships needed to understand – and shape – these kernels of new connection; to ensure that they are, in fact, harnessed to build a better world.

First we connect. Then we move. Together.