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Social networks call for real people

There is a German saying that goes: relationships are only harmful for those who have none. But is it really possible to establish genuine friendships via the internet? Or has the digital age forced us to reconsider social networking and real encounters because these are more stable and reliable?

We create social networks out of the relationships we enter into with other people and institutions. For us as individuals, these include family and relatives, friends and neighbours. But we also organise our lives around networks specific to age, women and career. Furthermore, some social networks may have a societal or institutional nature, such as trade and industrial operations and public institutions such as kindergartens, schools, universities, citizens’ action groups etc.

Physical social networks are stable

Social networks like these all have one thing in common: they involve people coming together and meeting face to face. These regular personal meetings establish trust. And trust forms the basis of the stable social networks that ultimately sustain us.

Physical social networks make use of informal information channels. These include spontaneous communication between acquaintances, which – in contrast to formal communication – usually take place in peripheral areas such as the car park, at the coffee machine etc. Such meetings often generate useful advice that can benefit us not only professionally (a personal relationship with a responsible person is often more important than professional expertise alone), but in all walks of life.

Once we have created a personal social network, it can then afford us practical, emotional  and mental  support in crisis situations. But how do we establish stable social networks?

Social networks require active and intensive fostering

Physical social networks function on a give-and-take basis. Having the right attitude is paramount; this means taking a genuine and honest interest in other people and their lives. Successful networkers first check how they can help other people. Your first question should always be: ‘To whom can I be of use?' You should then be thoughtful and attentive: you know of a vacant apartment, and a friend is looking to move – so you set up the link. You will never establish as many contacts in this way as in virtual networks. But because they are so strong, these relationships will ultimately pay dividends.

A dialogue between cultures can also only take place at the personal level, according to Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Goethe-Institut. The Goethe-Institut is made up of 159 institutes in 94 countries and provides information on German language and culture. If you add to this all the other contact points, that makes around 1,000 representations worldwide. And this global network of educational cooperation is growing from year to year. These genuine partnerships have now evolved into a permanent community.

Physical social networks have a future

But in this era of digital change, are such extended non-virtual networks even relevant today? ‘Now, more than ever, if we are to protect ourselves against unbridled data evaluation and economisation we need real places with real people to create independent spaces for dialogue,’ says Klaus-Dieter Lehmann. Precisely because of social changes taking place, Lehmann is keen to highlight the paramount importance of personal networks: ‘What really makes the physical network so credible is its independence from commercial influences.’

To sum up: social networks built around personal relationships are what make life what it is. This is not only true for one’s professional career, but also for all aspects of private life. We need personal contacts, because dialogue and common experiences create relationships that are sustainable for the future. Moreover, physical social networks are not only of value for the individual, but also essential for stable social and intercultural relations.

Praise for physical networks

The internet is good for communicating and talking about oneself, but of little value for actually meeting people. Commendation for physical social networks from Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Goethe-Institut, published in the Berliner Tagesspiegel.

>> Tagesspiegel – Lob der physischen Netzwerke (‘Praise for physical networks’, in German only)

Networking with the Alumniportal Deutschland

As a virtual social network the Alumniportal Deutschland promotes online networking and knowledge exchange between Deutschland alumni, companies, universities and organisations. But here, too, interpersonal relations have a role to play. Alumniportal’s partners all cooperate closely with regional offices and foreign institutes, where real people meet. There are currently 19 Alumniportal multipliers around the world who can be contacted by Deutschland alumni in their own countries and who also organise local alumni events.

October 2014

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