Thursday, March 4, 2010

How do you spark real conversations?

TEDx was held in Gurgaon last weekend, which was an interesting event considering it was community organized. I went to hear Kishore Bhargava and Atul Chitnis speak. (Those were the only two speakers visible online when I checked the site way back when.) I also dragged Jeanne with me. Read her reaction here. The event was more well organized than I had expected -- starting on time and speakers pretty much spoke at the right relatively intended time. (I stopped having expectations for conferences in India a long time ago.) Unfortunately, I had to run in and out of the conference because I had appointments scheduled. I caught the tail end of Osama Manzar's talk on Digital Empowerment. That really inspired me. It's great to meet folks that share the same vision as you. It's also uplifting to know that there are others out there trying to change thw world from a grassroots level.

What I found weird was the videos in between of TED speakers. While they were thought provoking, I couldn't understand why they were shown. We just assumed it was to make up for the lack of live speakers. I mean, couldn't we just sat at home and watch the videos? Plus the audio wasn't calibrated properly (my biggest pet peeve) and the visual wasn't at the right resolution.

I enjoyed Atul's talk on the BBS systems, and the old ways of communicating online. A lot of people disagreed on his statement about folks not having meaningful conversations anymore. He asked the question on how we can teach the next generation to have conversations. Of course there was a strong reaction from the audience (which was great since that was the only time people became alive). I wished there was an interactive session that followed the talk but it didn't. Plus Jeanne and I had to run to a different meeting after tea time.

While Atul was speaking, I started thinking about the next generation of social media consumers. About how I started using the Internet. I was part of the first generation of social media consumers. I still remembered when was marketing to "the youth" at a youth conference in Washington, D.C. This was when TakingITGlobal went online and folks were talking about connecting to those who are separated for three degrees -- this was before the dotcom bust back in 1999. Did we use social media back then to have real conversations? We certainly did.

Student activists used platforms like Friendster to connect with activists across the nation. Fast forward to the Facebook era, there is a lot more noise but I follow young people like Will and Shonali. Yes, there's a lot of teenage banter but there's also a lot of meaningful conversation. We've talked about renewable energy, religion, culture and dealing with being outsiders more so on these young people's walls than other adults.

Will is 16, a fantastic writer (his blog here) and an excellent conversationalist. He comes up with topics that some adults can't even fathom. He knows more of literature, culture, and subculture more so than a lot of people in their twenties. He has no problems hanging out with us at "adult functions", which I wouldn't even invite some folks I know. Shonali is just a remarkable young woman who is not afraid to make her point and engages people. Her wall comments go on and on with real, meaningful conversation.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, one of Atul's questions at TEDx was on how to get young people to have real conversations. The answer is simple -- engage with them. Engage in real conversations with young people. Give them books and other materials to read. Ask them questions. Listen to what they have to say. Listening to young people and validating them as young adults not just empowers them but gives them reasons to go out and engage in more real conversations. They question their friends, and influence other young thought leaders.

I was lucky enough to have parents who gave me protocols to read. Knowing what ICJ is and how it functions in my pre-teen years was awesome. Experiencing first hand, the notes from the Earth Summit in Rio influenced me a great deal, too. You don't need to have diplomats for parents to have these conversations. We can always talk about the price of oil, society's dependency on it, war and terrorism that happens in our own back yards, racism etc. These are things that will effect future generations, too, not just us.

Another big factor to all this is travel. Both Will and Shonali are third culture kids. They've traveled enough to know that this world is not homogeneous. That it is not one dimensional, that our generation is leaving them a lot of problems and challenges for them to solve and deal with. We need to engage and talk about these problems so that they can be better leaders and citizens of the world when they grow up. Already I hear things like, "You guys are leaving us a shitty planet and we're going to have to solve this stuff," they're right in a sense but they don't have to grow up totally unprepared.

How do you have real conversations with young people?