We wrote this essay over 20 years ago as a chapter in a book on community building. It describes our information and idea exchange business at the time, which lasted 25 years and impacted the lives of hundreds of people. It was written before social media and the ubiquitous online connections that most people count on these days. However, we still maintain that people, not computers, make the best network generators.
From In the Company of Others: Making Community in the Modern World
© 1993 by Leif Smith and Pat Wagner All rights reserved.
Claude Whitmyer, editor and contributor.
Foreword by Eric Utne
Published by Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1993. Chapter 32.
Check out Claude’s current work at www.futureu.com and www.meaningfulwork.com
When David first visited our office in Denver, after months of working in Singapore, he expressed concern that he would be in our way. After all, his engineering skills were not needed amidst the piles of paperwork, books, and computer equipment. He wanted to be more than an idle tourist, but what kind of contribution could he make?
“What could I possibly do to be of service?” he asked. A few minutes later, the phone rang. Did we know about our mutual friend Connie, the caller asked? Her husband had been transferred to Singapore, and she was frantically trying to find out about living conditions there. Had Connie contacted us yet for assistance? David’s jaw sagged in astonishment when we told him he had his first assignment.
We phoned Connie and explained that we had an expatriate American in our office who was currently living in Singapore. Would she like to talk to him? Would she?!! For the next hour or so, David proceeded to tell Connie everything she needed to know to smooth her family’s move to Singapore. When David returned to Singapore, he maintained his friendship with Connie and her family during their stay there and has continued to do so since.
We have become used to these kinds of coincidences.
The Office for Open Network, a project Leif started over 17 years ago [1975-2000], puts people in touch with each other for mutual benefit. It is fueled, not by some monster computer system, but rather by the hearts and minds of hundreds of people. These people, our clients and friends, tend to be adventurers poised on the edge of a great wilderness of which they know little. They come to us for maps, tools, and introductions to fellow travelers.
The Office for Open Network is not a network; it is a network generator. It is not a community; it contributes to many communities, some existing and others yet to be conceived. Our clients tend to be people who cherish their own ideas about the world, but still like to be in touch with other explorers no matter what their destination.
[The service was based at the time on a yearly fee of $60; a lifetime account was $250.00.] They might be starting a new business, a new nonprofit, or a new book project. They might be liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian, green, or red.
Abe teaches businesses how to decrease bad debt. Rebecca sews bridal gowns. Jeff is bringing together some experienced, international coal brokers to examine a deal involving mines in Siberia. Liz, an official in a government agency, needs information to help her evaluate hardware and software for a multi-agency online clearinghouse. Fran wants to know the feasibility of setting up a home business writing for medical journals.
People sign up with us for many reasons.
Jan needs to sell some antique furniture and find someone to dig up her prize iris garden. Ginny is fundraising for a social venture foundation. Jim is looking for participants for his men’s group. Elizabeth needs a clinical psychologist to keynote a health conference. Marilyn is looking for ways to make her diabetic cat more comfortable. Carl is moving to Seattle and reviving his music career. Kathy is looking for a new boyfriend, and Kendra is trying to understand her economics homework.
It is not necessary to have detailed histories of each person. It is enough if we know something of the person’s past experience regarding their current interest and something of the trajectory of their quest. For example, we need to know if Marilyn already has consulted a number of veterinarians on behalf of her cat, if she prefers hi-tech to holistic solutions, and how much money and time she has budgeted. We also need to have a sense of what Marilyn “really” needs. Is she looking for a supportive friend or a clinically objective expert?
For the results-oriented person on deadline, it is enough that we find them an electrician or locate a harvestable source of bat dung. But, we also pay attention to the potential content of the information exchange, where links of common interests join people in communities based on connections as tenuous as a shared love of fast cars or a mutual interest in participating in oil lease partnerships.
Some of our clients still cling to the notion that the Monster Computer really does exist and that their requests are fed into a giant database. [Sorry; it still does not exist.] Some of them seem to be wary of the ambiguity of our processes and still are not prepared to believe that when they contact our office, human beings think about what they need and make educated guesses about whom they should talk with and why. The part of our work that encompasses the process of building working relationships among our clients is the part that puzzles folks who want us to be a mechanized clearinghouse. It pleases those who are happy to build fellowship in addition to achieving immediate, measurable results.
Relationships versus results.
However, the people who focus too much on the relationships also may misunderstand what we are doing. They think that the warm feelings that exist among many of our clients, those feelings of trust and friendship that were not really part of the original purpose but are a reality for many people, are a product of… what? They are not sure how the warm feelings came to be, and this failure to understand is reflected in requests for access to people and their resources without consideration for the other person’s boundaries.
From the sincere businesswoman who asked for a list of rich people to call in order to bail her boyfriend out of financial trouble to the spiritual workshop leader who couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t give him the phone numbers of everybody we know, they are usually extremely friendly, but without a sense for the substance needed to make a successful connection based on mutual aid and interest.
We ask folks who are focused only on their own needs to explain to us what the benefit would be to the other party to be put in touch with them. They often don’t think about the cost to the other person in terms of time and attention. They want instant rapport, trust, and an entry into the other person’s territory and personal communities. When we are not forthcoming with that information, they sometimes accuse us of elitism.
What these people don’t understand is that boundaries are necessary for creating good community. Each person must be able to decide for themselves what those boundaries are. Over the years we have discovered that the easier we make it for people to say “no”, the more likely they are to say “yes”. Our clients’ ability to request boundaries and our ability (which is far from perfect) to respond to those requests help keep the networks of relationships vigorous and stable.
Much of the vitality springs from its diversity; we are an “open network” office.
Attracting adventurers works. Keeping a balance between results and relationships works. Respecting boundaries works. What else promotes the health of the connections made through the Office for Open Network?
Our clients range from wealthy industrialists to communitarian rural Greens, from suburban housewives who play tennis and stay at home to raise their families to itinerant fitness junkies who peddle mountain bikes in Germany. We have clients who think nuclear energy is wonderful and ones who think it is the Devil’s own handmaiden. We have clients who hate Republicans and ones who serve on the state Republican committee. Pick an issue. Within the hour, we probably could supply you with the phone numbers of at least three sets of articulate, interesting people with conflicting points of view on the topic.
Journalists and librarians understand us best, and they know the great delight we get from the wonderful combinations of ideas and purposes visible from the walkways of our outpost. Each client is like a multi-faceted jewel, whose light splinters into a unique pattern of color and energy. Each individual pattern, which is constantly changing, contributes to the overall pattern, which also is constantly changing. The patterns represent shifting alliances, based on the most unlikely connections.
For example, the holistic therapist who hates food irradiation and the engineer who loves the idea are united in their appreciation of the mountain parks of the Front Range of Colorado. Often, the Enemy has the information and perspective we need to solve a problem, and if the Enemy is accessible to us, and we are motivated to do something for them in return, our world is better. Our office, and what it stands for, creates a neutral ground for the exploration of ideas without the fear of punishment or humiliation.
Where do the walls of the Office for Open Network end?
Some of our clients do not like the idea that their worst enemy also might be a client of the Office for Open Network. We once received a phone call from a woman active in local environmental issues who wanted us to know that as long as “that man” was a client, she would never sign up with us. If we followed her advice we would have to clear the acceptance of any client into our service with all the other clients, like the old private club “blackball”. The makeup of our clientele would be bland indeed.
Our clients are mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly 35-50, mostly educated. It pleases us, however, that our contacts run deep into every part of our city.
We have connections with gun-toting survivalists, lesbian feminists, Native Americans, conservative Christians, African-American Marxists, wiccan priestesses, people who use DOS computers, (or Amigas or NeXTs), and even a rare politician or two.
We take it as a good sign that less than 15% of our clients appear to share our personal philosophical biases. If we believed that we had special access to The Truth we might declare that connections made by us constitute “the One True Network,” and we might ask people to commit themselves to it [to us], forsaking all others. Instead, we see the Office for Open Network as a hardware store that people may employ to extend and enrich their own networks and to create new networks for themselves, their friends, and their allies.
Our hope is that through our work, and through the work of others, that the sense of open network, which amounts to the justified feeling that each individual is more likely to be ally than enemy, will become the possession of every human being. More listening posts resembling ours, established on the same frontier, whether formal or informal, will do much to achieve this end. Respect for boundaries, together with the willingness to serve all explorers, is crucial for success.
The shared expectation that a civilization fit for explorers may arise among us is not sufficient to constitute community, but it is an essential part of the ground on which many differently constituted communities may thrive, in peace, affording one another mutual aid, adventure, and joy.
This spirit still imbues our work.