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What a Montana Town Teaches about Facebook

Fishin' Buddies blogAs most of the EclipseWriter blog subscribers have figured out, I live in Missoula, Montana, a town made famous in Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.”

Whether it’s true that “The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana,” as Maclean wrote, I can’t say.

But I will say that for a town of 80,000 souls, Missoula is oddly interconnected. And that’s given me some solid tips on how to interact on social networks like Facebook.

I’ve lived in Missoula just over three years and yet know more people than I did after five years in tiny Hood River, Oregon (population 6,000) or The Big City, aka Portland (population 593,820).

The degree of separation here is less than 1, which means the new acquaintance who chatted with you at the wine bar on Saturday, then excused herself to meet friends, was actually meeting YOUR friends. You just didn’t know she was the missing link.

Most Missoulians make a concerted effort to build their personal and professional networks. Maybe it’s because we basically live on an island surrounded by mountains instead of water. But if you wander into town, you’re likely to remain a stranger for no more than 5 minutes. After that, someone will decide they need a new friend.

1)      “Friend” everyone with whom you had, have or may have a connection.

Yes, like many on Facebook, I started out “friending” only those who were actual friends. That was fine in the early days when I kept a low profile. But Missoulians are likely to invite you to their next dinner party simply because they heard a good word about you, they have mutual friends or they think you could use a good meal.

So with Facebook, I now make an exception for people who would be friends if I’d actually met them. That includes people I knew when I was 20, even if I haven’t heard from them since. And clients I’ve worked with long enough to develop a personal relationship. And people I should be friends with, because sooner or later I’ll need a Web developer or SEO expert or masseur. Especially a masseur.

2)      Don’t worry about whether the people you “friend” will attend your funeral.

A recent poll asked how many of your Facebook friends you thought would attend your funeral. Really? I don’t plan to be there, so why should they? Social interactions, even online, add richness to your personal and professional life in the now. Whether the same people will be doing that in decades takes nothing away from the present. Much as I’d like all my friendships to last through life and beyond, that’s not always how fate plays its hand.

3)      Interact enough with friends to keep yourself happy.

After 50 years of research, studies show that the quantity and quality of your connections—with friends, family, neighbors, colleagues—is so related to your health and happiness that you could call them equal. For someone who lives and works alone much of the time, that’s an important reminder of the importance of social interaction.

Even those people I know only through “ambient awareness” have potential for significant impact on my life. We might start with just a “like” here or comment there, but that forms the basis for more. A passing acquaintanceship was enough for me to ask one Facebook friend if she and her husband needed racing crew for their sailboat. They did and that’s why Saturdays last summer were so much fun.

Likewise I enjoy running into almost strangers around town, only to discover they know more about me and my life than I ever thought they would. After I get over the surprise, I appreciate the fact that Facebook gives us fodder to kickstart a conversation no matter how infrequently we meet.

4)      Make enough distant friends and fans that you always have someone to meet.

I recently read about photographer Ty Morin, a man with 788 Facebook friends, who’s making a documentary called “Friend Request” about his quest to meet them all. He estimates he knows only 300. I’m fairly certain I know 90% of my Facebook friends and maybe 80% of Eclipse Communications’ Facebook fans. But they’re all certainly worth the effort.

John Runk and John Anderson shouldn’t be so tough—they’re in California. Maurice Chike Ugwonoh lives in Nigeria, so that’s farther afield. But distance doesn’t preclude friendship: We share acquaintances or interests or philosophies that bind us together in the same way that friendships in the real world do. Someday I hope to sit down with each of them and enjoy our bond in person.

5)      Interact enough with fans to keep your business energized.

When I started the Eclipse Communications Facebook page in January, I thought it might lead to more business, new business, or different business. After two months, I don’t think that’s the goal. I’ve found the real value lies in the connections, the ideas, the energy shared with others. Knowing what you’re up to inspires me.

With only 142 fans, it’s easy to interact. But you know what? I can handle more. Even this introvert recognizes that it’s the people who make being in business—and living in a small city in Montana—truly satisfying.

Photo “Fishin’ Buddies” © 2013 Mark Mesenko.