It wasn’t all that long ago that many of us involved in workplace learning and performance saw our face-to-face and online communities as nonintersecting elements of our lives. Face-to-face contact was perceived to somehow be more rewarding, offering deeper, richer relationships than those we had online.
Having dinner last night with a small group of ALA Learning Round Table colleagues who are here in San Diego to attend the 2011 American Library Association (ALA) midwinter meeting reminded me once again how far we’ve come. What became a tradition of gathering a few of us involved in learning opportunities for or within libraries for an evening of dinner and conversation spiced abundantly with an exchange of ideas and resources has, over the past few years, evolved into an opportunity to create and sustain a third place not defined by a physical geographical location—and it really continues to grow through the online contacts we maintain throughout the year.
What in Ray Oldenburg’s concept of The Great Good Place was a world comprised of our home as our first place, work as our second place, and a third place comprised of the treasured community site where we, our friends, and colleagues come and go has, in the age of Web 2.0 and online communities facilitated through social networking tools, come full circle. We now have a third place which can begin either face to face or online, be nurtured through frequent and productive online exchanges—meetings, online chats, regularly scheduled conversations on themes of interest to all participants—and also include those face-to-face encounters in physical settings which change from month to month and year to year depending on where members of the community find themselves crossing paths.
More importantly, the result of this sort of fluid and flexible community which moves back and forth between physical and virtual encounters produces the sort of development and exchange of ideas that Frans Johansson so effectively describes in his The Medici Effect—a tribute to what happens when people of differing backgrounds meet, exchange ideas, and, through their intersection, develop and disseminate new ideas.
Which is exactly what happened again last night. The five of us who were able to extend our continuing long-distance conversations did not arrive with an agenda—that’s neither third place nor Medici Effect thinking. And we did not limit ourselves to discussing what is happening in workplace learning and development or in libraries, although those are the common threads which originally brought us all together. The conversation actually began as many third-place conversations do: with comments about issues that are on our minds, including the anger and frustration we feel that basic social issues such as finding ways to do more than feel bad when we see homeless people sleeping on the streets of the cities which are our homes are not being addressed while members of our national legislature read the American Constitution to each other.
And here’s where our onsite-online third place took an interesting Medici Effect twist: one of our colleagues mentioned that out of her personal frustration came the practice of having a bag of groceries in her car so that when she is running errands and comes across someone in need of food, she has something she can give them. It seems to be an inadequate response to a huge problem, she suggested, but it serves as a step in the right direction of remaining engaged with members of her own community. Another colleague present for our third-place gathering jumped in with what she called the story—dare we use the word parable here?—of the girl and the starfish: a young girl, spotting thousands of starfish being washed up on a beach, began throwing some back into the water and, when questioned why she was addressing such an insurmountably large challenge with an action that seemed so insignificant, responded that it wasn’t insignificant to the starfish that she saved.
It didn’t take us long to identify the Medici Effect moment in both stories: what was, up to that moment, an individual effort of providing small offerings of food took on greater import through the sharing of the story about the bags of groceries. If even one of us hearing the story adopts the practice of carrying and distributing groceries to those in need, then our colleague’s action has been multiplied and we are one step closer to supporting what she has inspired to the benefit of those who might otherwise not receive the gift of being acknowledged as members of our overall community.
And at a human level, there was even more: one element that makes our third-place/Medici Effect onsite-online community continue to thrive and grow is that there are no overtly closed doors—new members join as quickly as they express interest in becoming part of the overall conversation.
That happened again last night when our wonderful waitress at Mint Downtown Thai restaurant became part of the various conversations we had and, upon learning that we were among the more than 5,000 people spending the next several days in San Diego to attend the ALA midwinter meeting, immediately asked us each to tell her what our favorite books are so she would have more works to explore. Among those suggested: the novels Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett; The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruis Zafón; and The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay, along with the Notzake Shange’s poetry collection For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. And, as is the obligation of any member of a third-place/Medici Effect community, she responded with her own favorites: Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
So, for those of us who were present—including new community member Ashli at Mint Downtown Thai—we had our cake and ate it too: we walked away with encouragement and inspiration to continue doing what we do, and we had the added benefit of being reminded of books we need to read—or reread—as our onsite-online connections continue growing.