Retrospective: Practical Social Networking

Practical Social Networking was the third Guild of the ROSE course. Taught by Councilor David Youssef, the course was an introduction to the art of growing and nurturing a healthy social web.

Topics addressed included:

  1. Why friendships matter; a data-based explanation of the costs of loneliness
  2. Charm; a prosocial approach to being interesting and likeable
  3. Maintaining friendships; or how to keep old, valuable friendships from withering away

Weekly Rundown

Week 1: Foundations of Friendship

Week 1 gave a deep-dive into the reasons why it's important to have friends. It also introduced the three-compliments daily task. For the duration of the course, students were required to give strangers three sincere compliments every day.

While people liked the idea of the three-compliments task, almost everyone agreed that three a day was too many. Most people's lives are structured to minimize contact with strangers, and it takes significant time and effort to change that. In future versions of the course, we'll start at one per day and ramp up over several months.

People also complained that the name of the class session didn't match the content. Instead of explaining how to build the foundations of friendship, the class mostly focused on justifying the value of friends. This is a valid criticism and something we'll try to address in the future.

Week 2: Acquaintance and Curiosity

Week 2 focused on finding acquaintances and getting curious about people. The homework was to sign up for a new weekly activity involving other people. Students were also asked to write a three-sentence elevator pitch for why people should be friends with them.

Members agreed that the lecture content for Week 2 was good, but that there were missed opportunities around the cohort exercise. Since a major theme of Week 2 is the value of smalltalk, we should have given the cohorts an applied smalltalk task during class time. Some suggestions were:

  1. Speed socialization, where people pair off and practice small talk. Pairs rotate every few minutes.
  2. Guild open house, where cohorts talk to people outside of the Guild, possibly in a non-Guild venue
  3. Group smalltalk, where the cohorts pair off as groups and talk to each other

Of these ideas, we're likely to do #1 in the future. Cross-cohort interaction has been a commonly requested feature and part of small talk is doing it with strangers. While we're reluctant to tinker too much with the cohort formula, the benefit of hands-on practice is well worth the risk in this case.

Students also said that the lectures convinced them of smalltalk's value, but didn't give much advice on how to perform smalltalk. This left people feeling a little lost. In the future, we plan to include more content that directly addresses the mechanics of smalltalk on the object level. Some potential candidates for this include The Phatic and Anti-Inductive or theater improvisation.

Week 3: Casual Exploration

Week 3 focused on charm and being an interesting person. Its homework was to have three social interactions that leave the other person feeling happier. Students were also instructed to initiate a one-on-one hangout with an acquaintance. The optional assignment was to use small talk to discover something interesting about a stranger.

Some people felt that Week 3 was redundant with Week 2. Others found it helpful to have the abstract theory of Week 2 followed by the concrete objectives laid out in Week 3.

Notably, Week 3 motivated one of our members to organize a local meetup! Shoutout to MatthewBaggins from Hound cohort!

Week 4: Familiar Friendship

Week 4 covered ways to connect discrete clusters of friends. Its homework was to do an activity with two casual friends and ask three other casual friends about what activities they like to do.

This was when people started burning out. Many of our members reported that the previously-high workload became unmanageable around this time, in large part because weeks 4-6 assumed that everyone had a strong social web. For example, several people flat-out said that they didn't have enough casual friends with shared interests to do the homework for Week 4.

Interestingly enough, our raw attendance statistics actually show an increase in attendance. However, this is misleading. The increase isn't due to improved engagement, but because we had an influx of new members.

Attendance chart

In the future, we plan to run Practical Social Networking as a once-a-month class, to give students time to build up their social webs over a longer period of time.

Week 5: Vulnerability

Week 5 focused on ways to increase the depth of a friendship, mainly through shared travel activities. The assignment was to introduce two people in your social web to each other, and the optional homework was to draw a diagram of your social web.

The primary feedback for Week 5 was to have non-travel options. Another common concern was that most people's social webs are already saturated. Even if you're willing to make space for someone, it can be hard to get them to reciprocate.

The optional diagram exercise was popular, but should have come earlier, perhaps in one of the first couple courses. It might also be useful to do two diagrams; one early and one late, in order to have a concrete visualization of one's progress.

Week 6: Intergroup Dynamics and Maintaining Friendships

Week 6 focused on long-term strategies for nourishing friendships. The homework was to plan a trip with three friends and to think about the kind of friend network you want in half a year. As an optional assignment, members were also tasked with inviting three friends over for a movie night.

This was the part of the course that resonated most with people. Many students also said that the idea of maintaining old friendships wasn't something they really thought about. Others said that it was helpful to have the course an excuse to do social events that they already wanted to.

There was also some criticism that the course as a whole -- and especially week 6 -- placed too much emphasis on keeping friends. Much like a rose bush, a social web needs judicious pruning to keep it healthy. Sometimes people drift apart naturally and it's not worth trying to restart an old relationship. Not everyone is worth being friends with.

In future versions of the course, we'll make it clear from the start that the goal isn't to maximize the number of friends, but the quality of one's social web as a whole.

Retrospective Week

We previously solicited feedback via surveys, user interviews, and weekly feedback forms. Engagement with these channels has been mediocre at best and nonexistent at worst. As a result, we trialed a new approach for Practical Social Networking. At the end of the course, we had a "retrospective week". This was a class session where the instructor went through the course week by week and asked people what they thought.

Retrospective week got us several times more feedback from a single class session than we typically get from half a dozen weeks of forms and surveys. Additionally, the feedback was much more candid and valuable. Previously, people often filled out the form with some variation of "it was fine", which isn't particularly useful. During retrospective week, we had suggestions about the content, its presentation, its pace, and dozens of other gears-level improvements that we can make.

Moving forwards, we intend to do a retrospective week after each course. This will replace our feedback forms and surveys, but we will still do occasional user interviews. Our feeling is that retrospective week and user interviews serve two slightly different purposes and it's good to have both.

On-Site Course Content

During the Alpha and first two Beta courses, people were frequently confused about where to find course content. In Context and Communication, we implemented a system where course content was linked on our website. These links made it easy for people to find each week's lectures and assignments. However, the actual content was still hosted offsite (typically on Youtube or Google Docs).

While we're willing to host our video lectures on Youtube, we felt that having our course content on Google Docs was unprofessional. Therefore, we trialed a new system during Practical Social Networking. Assignment docs were hosted directly on the Guild website. We also retroactively updated of our old courses to use web pages instead of Google Docs.

This approach was well-received, with our course session pages receiving over 1000 combined views.

Wrap-up

Overall Practical Social Networking wasn't a success or a failure. While some people got a lot out of it, we also struggled with engagement and there were some missed opportunities.

Lessons Learned

  • Don't run a class focused on social interaction at the start of a new round of pandemic lockdowns
  • Implement a hard 1-hour time cap on weekly homework. Tasks that take longer than one hour should be optional content
  • Ramp up the intensity of difficult daily tasks, instead of dropping students into the deep end
  • The daily compliments task was good in concept, if not execution. Many people reported that it was helpful even almost nobody was able to keep it up for the entire course

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