What Happens To People Over Time When It Comes To Relationships?


Sunday, 8.30am

Sheffield, U.K.

There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met. – William Butler Yeats

I’m reading Algorithms to live by by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths and it has some very interesting ideas. As an aside, I’ve started a shadow blog which is a simple site and you’ll find book notes for this book there.

One of the things we know about groups and friendships is that it really comes down to the amount of time you have free. When you’re a kid, there’s all the time in the world. If you meet another kid and you have something in common, anything really, you can play for hours. As you get older you have less time, the days are filled with important things and so you have to often decide whether you do something new and meet new people or spend more time with the people you already know well. And that time equation leads us to naturally select and focus our attention, over time, on the few people that we know well so that we have fewer people in our circles the older we get.

This problem falls into a category that Christian and Griffiths might term Explore vs Exploit – do you spend your time trying to find new people and connections or do you spend time with the ones you know. Getting the balance right is tricky and it does get harder as you get older. They point out that going to college is an exciting time for young people, because they get to meet new people. Going to an old age home is often a scary and unwelcome thing for older people, even though they will also get to meet new people. The newness is there, the only thing that’s different is how old the person is that’s experiencing the newness.

For a long time the relationships people had were within a few miles of where they lived. That’s still the case now, probably brought into sharp relief by the effects of the pandemic. When you can’t go anywhere the people closest to you geographically are the ones you are going to spend the most time with. At the same time the pandemic has also shown us how easy it is to connect with others a long way away using the technology we have now. That’s not new if you have been using the tech for a while – email really was the first major app to do this for us – but it’s brought this to general attention. But, of course, you have to think of the kind of change this is creating. Is it one way, where we get told stuff by one person or is it interactive, where we get to participate and engage with others?

The research in the area of friendships is sparse, but we know that having friends is good for you. There are differences in the way men and women approach friendships, with men often doing things together and women talking together. You have age-stage characteristics, as single people, young adults, families with young children, older adults and so on deal with the situations in which they find themselves.

Physical communities create opportunities for interaction – events, parties, balls. If you want people to meet and get on and create the friendships that form the network of a community you need to bring people together. And it’s the same with an online community or a community of practice. A regular cadence of meetings and interaction is required to get people involved. You usually need a core group of people that commit to making this happen and you need to make it easy for people to come and try it out and see if they like the vibe and then participate some more or move on.

One of the questions you have to ask yourself is whether you try and make this happen or whether you just let it happen. For example, if you have a blog do you actively comment and participate? Do you try and respond to everything and jolly people along until you get to a critical mass of comments and then it happens by itself? Or do you go the other extreme and turn comments off so that you can focus on your content and interact with people on your social media feeds or via email. Derek Sivers, for example, has a simple blog with a comments engine that seems to work pretty well.

I suppose really when you think about this topic it comes back to how you use your time. The more time you spend with someone the better you get to know them and the greater the chances that you will think of each other as friends. And that takes us back to the Explore vs Exploit conundrum. When you have time and a few friends then go and explore, find new ones. When you have less time and good friends, spend time with them and build those friendships.

There’s a lot of angst that comes with these situations. You have to decide when to engage, when to withdraw. You have to worry about how you’re perceived, how you come across, whether people like you or not. This Algorithms book is really quite useful because as I read it it’s giving me ideas and answers about how to approach these situations. If you’re wondering about new groups, for example, the answer is to try them out, early and often. Once you find a group that works for you, then stick with it. How long should you keep looking before you make your decision? The answer is 37% of the time you give yourself – say you give yourself a month – 30 days to find a group. After 11 days of participating stick with the next best one you find.

Now, let’s look at something a little different.

I’ve been working on book length projects since March this year – and this is the third project that I’ve started. I’m refining a process of writing, getting used to spending a certain amount of time circling around a topic and getting to grips with its complexity – rather than randomly writing about whatever seems interesting at the time.

I’ve giving myself permission to create “shitty first drafts”, which is really what these pages are. I’ve learned along the way that writing in paragraphs is important – because it makes life much easier when you’re later trying to pull stuff together. I’ve also been a little conflicted about the importance of writing versus research. You can write more when you’re working through an idea from first principles, but the research does give you a framework so you don’t repeat things that have already been done. But then again, a lot of research is behind walls and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing to use that but at the same time you’re not going to change the past and if there is good stuff locked away, does that mean you shouldn’t use it?

So, I was wondering whether the problem was my book topic this time – is community something that’s hard to get to grips with – or is it that I’m writing in a vacuum, at the limits of my knowledge and I really need the research to help me out? I was wondering whether I should abandon the idea or abandon the process.

So far, I think I’ve been writing on an important topic but without the structure that research gives me. So I’ll keep going but just with a bit more rigor and we’ll see where that takes us. My first two projects will probably stay unfinished until I can get the sentences sorted into paragraphs, but we’ll see where this one goes. Perhaps it’s a practice session to get things ready for the next one.

Okay, in the next post we’ll look at engagement. What makes the difference between an active, engaged community and a passive disengaged one?


Karthik Suresh

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