Friday, October 12, 2012

The kindness of strangers

When we think of 'networks,' we now typically think of our social networks, that is the people we know and consider 'friends.'

Network analysis can show how we are connected, or can be connected, to people who are otherwise 'far' from us.  This is the 'small world,' or '6 degrees of separation' thesis, which was originally proposed and tested by pyschologist, Stanley Milgram in the 1960's.

The 'network effect' can be a powerful way to mobilize our network connections.  Recent examples of start-ups getting capital (in some cases, lots of it!) from people they have never met.  Of course, these micro-investors are still investors and eventually will want a return, or at least their money back (no guarantees, of course, if you're thinking of investing with the 'crowd').

Another wonderful feature of networks is what can be referred to as 'the kindness of strangers.' Networks have the ability to put us in contact with and receive help from others who don't know us.  One of these systems that I am personally familiar with is the home exchange system. There are several of these exchange networks, some specialised in teachers, others that facilitate 'couch surfing' for younger travellers.  We have used the site for two longer sabbatical trips.  In 2000, we went to Krakow, Poland, Alicudi, a small island off Sicily, Italy and Weinheim, Germany.  This year, we had 3 more great experiences, two in France (Najac and Lyon) and one in Maine, USA. In fact, we have decided to keep our house listed and are exchanging with a couple in Colorado to ski in January.  In exchange, they will come stay in our place in New Zealand when it suits them.

The wonders of home exchanges are many. First, of course, is that your accommodation is taken care of by 'strangers.'  Second, you get to stay in a home (or second home, condo, RV, etc.) rather than a tourist hotel. Relatedly, you get to meet the neighbours and often make friends of your exchangers' friends while you're there. In Alicudi, for example, we became good friends with the local friends of our host during our 8-week stay and when we left the island, we had a wonderful going away dinner that we will always remember.  And, in some cases (but not required), you might stay in touch with and become friends with your fellow exchangers.

Believe it or not, has been going for 20 years and the trend seems to be growing.  As baby boomers travel more, their sense of community and sharing, coupled with their real estate holdings make home exchanges an attractive option for many travellers.  The psychology of exchange is simple: You share a place to stay with us, and we will do the same.  This web-enabled 'kindness of strangers' is not just a way to save money. It is a wonderful way to connect with those far away.

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