We Have New Tools to Ask For Help, But We Offer Advice Instead

Our connected world simplifies tasks that once were difficult and complex. The tools are ready to help us do new things. Sometimes, the future they make possible looks a lot like our distant past. But only if we change our habits to fit the new tools. Whipping a Model T never made it go faster.

Last week, I tried something new (at least for me), but what I got back was mostly old. I posted this on Facebook: “Who do I know with a sewing machine out and ready who can sew half a dozen large buttonholes in some white pillowcases? No big deal and no big hurry.”

“Who do I know?” is a social media meme that is actually useful. I used it only once before. Last fall, I “asked around” for a CO2 inflatable life vest, and found one I could borrow within two hours. Long ago, we would have asked our neighbors or pinned a 3×5 card on a bulletin board at the Post Office or grocery store.

Now we can use the networks we’ve built with social media tools to ask friends and friends of friends when we need some help. I’ve seen my younger friends ask for help moving into a new apartment with the promise of pizza as payment. It’s easy to do and it sometimes works.

I hang spare pillows on a wall in a bedroom. There’s more to the story but it’s not embarrassing or kinky, so I won’t tell it. The task at hand — for the right person — would take five minutes. But who was that right person and did I know them? That’s what I hoped my post would answer.

The first three good-hearted replies offered me advice instead of help. “Ask at a fabric store.” “Any tailor shop can do this for you.” “Saturday Market has plenty of people who sew.” In our previous world — the one with which we are most familiar — those would have been the best strategies available.

The fourth reply came from a friend who lives at the coast. She actually once stayed in that bedroom with the pillow hooks. And it just sew happened (sorry, I couldn’t resist) she was coming to Eugene last weekend for a work-related conference. She would bring her portable sewing machine. It was already loaded with white thread.

We met when she arrived. Kelly showed me baby pictures of her first grandchild. I told her about one of my current projects. We learned we have a mutual friend in Coos Bay. It’s a small world. Two mornings later, I found the finished pillow cases on my porch with a note: “It was good to catch up.” Yes, it was.

We stopped borrowing a cup of sugar when convenience stores popped up on every corner. We seldom offer our spare bedroom to friends because we have Motel 6 for that. The convenience of Uber will reduce ride-sharing between friends and colleagues. We’re losing opportunities to directly help one another. We should use our new tools to reclaim that pleasure for ourselves.

Kelly and I reconnected. She helped an old friend and I got my hangable pillows. It was simple, easy, direct, and fun. It would have been none of those things 20 years ago.

If we want to make the most of this new world, we’ll have to learn some new tricks. First among them might be to stop equating advice with help. Advice used to be extremely helpful in almost every circumstance. That was back when it was hard to learn new things or find other people.

Information was power, back when information was hard to come by.

Facebook encourages advice-seeking. They’ve built a tool for it. Include the word “recommend” or “recommendation” in your post, and the tool is triggered automatically. “Who do I know?” is different. It’s more like a modern phone tree — people asking other people — looking for Kelly, or somebody exactly like her.

If you use social media, try this digital equivalent of “asking around” the next time you need some sort of small help. That’s my advice.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.