What will an in-person community recovery look like?

Getting back offline, in a post-pandemic world.

Last month I held an in-person events for my #linkedinlocal group here in Australia. I didn’t post about it extensively on my social feeds because getting offline again felt a bit like a dirty little secret. Having developed and mentored the #linkedinlocal host community for two years, I know a lot many chapter leaders throughout the globe, along with many other local chapter leaders in other communities. The vast majority are not able to host in-person events, and have little idea when they will again. Many local chapters are on pause, others are evolving online. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones that here is Australia we are able to safely gather in person again. When you are a face to face connector, one who craves and facilitates offline connection regularly, its been a tough year and for many it continues to be another tough year. The feedback I continually get is that people feel really lost and strained without real human connection.

Which is why I have been hesitant to talk about it at length. I posted a few photos online in the hope that only my local connections would see it, and those afar would be spared what some might consider bad taste. But an events recovery is what so many people are thinking and continue to ponder - as vaccines role out, restrictions lift and the public sentiment turns, we need to ask ourselves - what does the process of recovery for offline events look like? Well, it looks a little like this,

One thing I can say is that when events return to shores across the world you can expect them to be,

  • Small in attendance numbers due to social distancing rules. As an introvert I personally love smaller events because there is less noise, and an opportunity for deeper conversations

  • Partly or entirely outdoors, weather permitting. This will help in allowing more people and get around some indoor restriction numbers, as well as help people feel more comfortable. As Spring and Summer hit the Northern Hemisphere, the prospect of events soon may be promising for many cities

  • There will most likely be a blend of offline and online where, for example, an offline group might create spaces online to connect. Or vice versa. This will be especially important in regions where the recovery will be bumpy.

What struck me about being offline again though were the conversations with people I hadn’t seen in 12 months, and meeting some new people. Do you remember that feeling of meeting someone new? Not a Zoom meeting or a LinkedIn connection feeling, but eye contact and a hello at a social event? And dare I say even a handshake, and one or two hugs (sorry…🤗)?

As we move well beyond the one year anniversary for lockdowns across the world, social beings are pondering what they miss the most in the long-term about their pre-pandemic life. Of course Zoom and online events have filled a void, but they can’t replace eye contact, opportunities for casual conversation, and the connection you feel with someone face to face.

Amanda Mull recently wrote a brilliant article in The Atlantic about how much we miss casual friendships in our lives. It outlines how and why the people in the peripherary of our lives are just as important as our inner circle of family and friends. They connect us to a feeling of belonging, build a sense of our place in our local communities and often help us feel a part of something bigger. She explains,

“Understandably, much of the energy directed toward the problems of pandemic social life has been spent on keeping people tied to their families and closest friends. These other relationships have withered largely unremarked on after the places that hosted them closed. The pandemic has evaporated entire categories of friendship, and by doing so, depleted the joys that make up a human life—and buoy human health.”

There are people on the outer periphery of my life for whom the concept of “keeping up” makes little sense, but there are also lots of friends and acquaintances—people I could theoretically hang out with outdoors or see on videochat, but with whom those tools just don’t feel right. In my life, this perception seems to be largely mutual—I am not turning down invites from these folks for Zoom catch-ups and walks in the park. Instead, our affection for each other is in a period of suspended animation, alongside indoor dining and international travel.”

The opportunity for us now is to re-imagine what comes next. How will we connect beyond the length of the pandemic? There is certainly a case for a hybrid model, especially considering accessibility, people’s comfort levels with social distancing, and the tightening and easing of restrictions on gatherings. But for offline communities there is real opportunity for re-building those loose ties, the ones we rely upon for business, when seeking job opportunities or to find out about local developments, such as where to eat or what events to see.

Meetup, founded by Scott Heiferman in 2002, was born out of Scott’s desire to gather people together for common interests and do good things. It did just that on a global scale and enabled millions of events, connections and conversations. The roaring 20s followed the pandemic of 1918-1920 so we could be in for quite a ride.

Whilst this is a period of baby steps I don’t believe it will be long before we are off and running in some cities, and those that are there to facilitate the connection among us have a real opportunity to get creative.

But I think there is a real opportunity for branded online communities to consider offline connection. Based on my experience of building the #LinkedInLocal movement, I’ve seen the type of connection that a blend of online and offline can bring. It can bring a platform, an experience and a conversation to life. Real life, and nothing beats that kind of interaction - its more tangible.

I believe it can begin, as #linkedinlocal did, with small and humble beginnings. A trickle of water here and there, coming together to form a stream, and eventually a river (to use the metaphor I talked about in my book, ‘How a Hashtag Changed The World’). Rivers have the ability to enable trade and conversation to flow up and downstream, and can unite local communities and users along its path.

But I am continually thinking about those serendipitous encounters we crave. The ones that happen by chance, the strangers we meet, the chance conversations we have, or the loose connection with someone at the office or gym, or perhaps a new connection we will make at a small informal event. Its these that can enrich our lives further.

Of course we are all going to have to learn to make friends again. Children do this so well, yet as adults we perhaps need to lean back on some old skills long forgotten this past year. I was recently reminded of this during a recent episode of Bluey - arguably Australia’s best TV show now available on Disney.

In the episode called ‘Cafe’, Bluey the dog makes a new friend called Winton at the park. They instantly launch into a game of cafe, forcing their fathers to sit at the same table and play customers while Winton and Bluey serve the pretend coffee and food. Whilst they play the Dad’s slowly get to know one another over general chit-chat. Bluey is so determined that Dad will become friends with Winton’s Dad and really pushes this friendship. Whilst I won’t give away too many spoilers, its a small reminder of how adults take a bit longer to make friends than children do. Children play and converse so easily with children they hardly know and perhaps we all need to learn from that. To enable conversation, the small beginnings of friendships, and move towards a more connected future. Belonging and connection is a deep human need that will never go away, and its these small serendipitous encounters that help build our personal and social capabilities.

Small in-person events can only increase these chance encounters and feed into that basic human need, when our cities are safe and ready.

What are your thoughts on the in-person communities in your area? I’d love to hear in the comments.

💙 Anna McAfee