SURF THIS: At this networking site, 'Smaller' is the new better

March 3, 2008

Several years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about "The Tipping Point," a now-famous book by economist Malcolm Gladwell. During this conversation, my friend casually mentioned that he thought it would be beneficial (though I think he may have actually said, "Wouldn't it be cool...") to get together with other people in the community to discuss the ideas put forth in this book and a variety of other "businessrelated" titles. I admit, I agreed that it would, indeed, be pretty cool.

Now most of us, after having this type of encounter, merely go about our business and forget it. This friend, however, isn't most of us. He followed a different path, and the Indy Business Book Club was born.

The club meets monthly to discuss the ideas contained within the most popular (and a few obscure) books about business, marketing, creativity, and more. From humble beginnings, the group now has more than 47 members.

So it was with this historical backdrop that I found myself with another invitation from the same friend: would I consider joining a social networking site? As you may know, I'm not the most enthusiastic of joiners, and I told him as much when I decided to accept the offer.

When I did, I became member number five of an interesting phenomenon called Smaller Indiana (www.smallerindiana.com). Since then, I've been more than a little surprised. The network was created to "make creative people and innovative ideas easier to find." The criteria for membership is simple: bring your authenticity, your ideas, and your open mind to interact and engage with people from across the state, across industries, with a common interest in creativity and personal and community improvement.

The goals of membership are as varied as the members, but it's common to find people citing an interest in improving Indiana, sharing creative ideas, getting more involved in the business community and networking. I think it's a great tool for keeping my finger on the pulse of the local community, something that can be otherwise difficult. It's easy for each of us to get caught up in our own events; our own responsibilities.

Smaller Indiana, having a distinct local flavor and home- grown appeal, provides an outreach mechanism to immediately connect with community leaders, activists and members; many of whom are outside our immediate circles of influence. This can be especially valuable, I think, when we're in the throes of great uncertainty, divisive events, and facing interesting challenges. (Examples of these might include the economy, the war, immigration issues, the election, and even our bid to host the Super Bowl.)

Smaller Indiana provides a ready-made forum to find and become engaged with people of all types and temperaments around common issues and concerns.

Individuals can join any number of the more than 90 smaller interest groups, covering a wide range of topics and sporting titles like "Greener Indiana," "Secular Humanism," "Historic Irvington," "Creative Commerce" and more. Can't find one that suits your particular interest? Start it yourself and invite others to join.

As with any other social network, the site is merely the tool and the people are the key. The site, in this case, is powered by Ning, a company that specializes in building these tools. It can be a little quirky, and there would certainly be items I'd include on my wish list for improvement, but overall, it does its job. It's fairly easy to navigate and only frustrates me when I'm trying to find something I've seen in the past and the search mechanism leaves me wanting.

The people on Smaller Indiana, on the other hand, have truly blown me away. The membership is about to pass 1,200 and the activity level is astounding, with new discussions being started daily and people finding their own ways to make it work for them. You don't really need an invitation to join, but if you feel better having one, here it is:

Join Us. Lend your ear and your voice to the conversation and help us improve Indiana, one step and one day at a time.

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a fullservice advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.
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