The glaring lights and colorful signs – buzzing with electricity – illuminate a sea of people hurrying down the streets of Shibuya. Vending machines sell ramen, bananas, umbrellas, soup stock – anything you can name, even beer. A deafening dissonance of whoops, wails and whirs emanate from the arcades in Akihabara. My first time in Tokyo was analogous to trying to navigate the Internet these days – disorienting, busy, hyper-stimulating.
Going into my first trip, there was so much about Japanese culture that I related to and was ready to experience firsthand. I was fascinated with their culture, and the craftsmanship embedded in their art, engineering, and common goods – I was excited to experience it all. But as I started to map out the places I wanted to go, I was quickly confronted with the question of: Where do I look? Where do I even start?
Luckily for me, my then girlfriend, Stephanie, was there to show me around. And it turned out to be one of the most memorable trips of my life.
When you find yourself in these new places that you’re so eager to explore, it can be daunting to try to find the hidden pockets of opportunity within them. This is the position that many people found themselves in during the pandemic. Millions turned to the Internet, hoping to change how they related to it. Despite my increasing cynicism towards social media, I realized that it might provide an answer for the connection, engagement, and enjoyment I longed for while sheltering-in-place.
And when I ventured back in, I was quickly overcome with the sheer volume of information, and the velocity it was coming at me. Just like my first time experiencing the city lights in Tokyo at night, my brain, my senses, struggled to process that level of input and stimulation.
So when this new quest for connection began, I wasn’t sure where to look, where to start, or how to cut through the noise. Maybe I could use the lessons from Japan to learn to navigate this land of chaos?
Big Public Spaces
In downtown Shibuya is Hachiko Square, the best-known meeting place in all of Tokyo. It’s right outside of two of the most heavily used railways in the world, and its 6-way pedestrian scramble is said to be the busiest in the world.
As a visitor with an untrained eye, you might wonder why people would decide to use such a busy location as a rendezvous point. And when you actually arrive at that intersection as the lights change, and see the flood gates open–releasing a sea of strangers–it further drills home that feeling of being lost in the chaos.
Let’s say you’re into poetry – specifically Bukowski. Or you’re pursuing a new career – trying to make it in this new creator economy. You’re ready to connect, to create, to share. You’ve undoubtedly seen how many of your friends met their partners online. You know the Internet has potential as a matchmaker, but how do you filter out the noise? Are you supposed to show up on Twitter and start screaming out loud, hoping the other Bukowski fans will be able to find you?
You could try to find the others yourself by browsing Twitter communities or subreddits that relate to your curiosity – but these communities can be too general to be relevant, and too broad to establish an intimate connection with any sort of group; it becomes very easy to feel like an outsider and get discouraged.
Even worse, you might end up somewhere packed to the brim with other tourists who are not as interested in the quality of experience that you are. Situations like these don’t encourage diving in, taking risks, and being vulnerable – it becomes too easy to skirt and skim the places you go, physical or digital.
The key to having quality experiences and finding like-minded people on the Internet is reducing the size of the Internet.
Instead of putting your signal out there in these big public spaces and hoping that somebody is on the same frequency, it’s much more effective to find these small, niche communities where the people in the group have a specific mutual interest. Due to their small nature, they tend to protect, nurture, and guide the newcomers.
If you’re an inexperienced explorer scouting a new terrain, you might get lost in the forest of abundance. It might make more sense to follow the trail of a seasoned guide, who has a better map of the territory than you.
Little Third Places
Third places refer to places where people spend time between home (‘first’ place) and work (‘second’ place). They are locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships (Source). It can be hard to find these places on your own though. The best ones are often found through word-of-mouth.
During that first trip to Tokyo, Stephanie led me down the path that she had carved for herself, and the guidance she gave me helped me unlock the city. It gave me the freedom to enjoy myself and take everything in without getting overwhelmed.
Whether it was the Sakura-tei, an art gallery tucked away in the far corner of a Harajuku alley, or the nameless subterranean whiskey bar in Kabukicho, Stephanie showed me the places “only the locals knew about.” It was within these places I was able to experience and absorb the unique characteristics and cultures of these different wards, and meet the exceptional people that they attracted.
Having her as a guide gave me a new lens to interpret the city through, and I started to see things I had previously been blind to. The pedestrian scramble in Hachiko Square took on a whole new meaning when she told me the story behind the Hachiko statue. I understood the symbolism and sentimentality of meeting there once I learned of the loyal dog who returned there every day for eight years, waiting for his deceased owner to return.
Through this new lens, the intersection went from being a chaotic crossroads to a gateway into the obscure stories ofJapanese culture.
It was this prior guidance, this figurative hand-holding, and those positive experiences that followed, that led me to recommend finding a tour guide anytime you’re exploring any new place.
During COVID, I counterintuitively made new friends (albeit virtually). I followed the example from my previous trip in Japan, and pursued tour guides that led me to new digital third places, and introduced me to many of the like-minded people whom I now call friends. Through David Perell I found the Write of Passage community, and my writing group, Writual. Through Tiago Forte and Conor White-Sullivan I was introduced to the Tools for Thought community.
In each of these groups I found that shared curiosities broke down the traditional barriers you would expect to have in digital interactions with people you have never met IRL. It turns out that there’s much more potency to an interaction with somebody who has the same weirdly specific interests as you, and it’s much easier to build rapport than you’d expect.
Prior to finding these groups, I had this growing perception that a majority of social interactions happening on these online platforms were laced with hate, vitriol, or “I’m-better-than-you-in-some-way” signaling. But the generosity and acceptance I found in these niche communities couldn’t have been further from that. The willingness to help others, to freely share information and advice, to give time selflessly – it rekindled my hope that the Internet could be the grand, unifying platform that I had envisioned all those years ago when I first got introduced to online social networks.
These interactions are all facilitated by these tour guides. Whether you’re exploring the streets of Tokyo, or navigating digital terrains– there is a particular orbit around these individuals. They shrink the size of these massive places, and attract only the types of people that are on the same wavelength as you – people with similar interests and aspirations, who are, just like you, looking for ways to connect, learn, and grow.
“Who you hang out with determines what you dream about and what you collide with. And the collisions and the dreams lead to your changes. And the changes are what you become. Change the outcome by changing your circle.” – Seth Godin
Convinced that the Internet can connect you with like-minded people, your next question might be: where do I find these tour guides?
How to ‘Find the Others’
As more of our social interactions happen online, it becomes imperative to find communities where we can participate and thrive within. And the first step towards discovering these niches–these digital third places–is by finding and following tour guides.
You can use this framework to try narrow in on who to follow:
- List out your interests
- What activities do you most enjoy doing in your free time?
- What makes you come alive when you learn or read about it?
- When you think back to your childhood or college days, what did you love doing?
- What fascinates you?
- What could you talk about for hours with a close friend?
For me, this included: writing, storytelling, philosophy, media theory, human behavior, mindfulness, productivity, sustainability, ADHD.
- Follow key figures in those spaces
- Ask friends and colleagues with similar interests if they have any recommendations for books or authors.
- Make note of the subject matter experts included in documentaries or youtube videos that you’ve enjoyed.
- Check out their social profiles, what they’ve written in the past, and see what resonates with you
- Once you’ve found a key person in your area of interest, follow the cookie crumbs and see who they’re following, or what you’ve like that they’ve reposted from others
For me it was: Ryan Holiday, Tim Urban, Ryder Carroll, Seth Godin, David Cain, James Clear, Tim Ferriss, Douglas Rushkoff, Shane Parrish, David Perell, Tiago Forte, Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Khe Hy, Conor White-Sullivan.
- Check for opportunities:
- It’s not enough to follow these creators and consume their content. You want to find the third places that gravitate around these guides.
- Beyond Twitter, these key figures often have their own platforms that host their communities and followers.
- By finding these shared contexts, you can increase the likelihood of serendipitously meeting people who are on your same wavelength.
David Perell, Tiago Forte, and Anne-Laure all have cohort-based courses and online communities. Tim Urban and Khe Hy regularly host interactive Zoom workshops. Roam Book Club (RBC) was championed by Conor and arose from the community’s desire to explore collective knowledge management and sense-making.
- Take bold action
- Once you find a third place that resonates with you, dive into it. Go to an event, take a course, join a forum (a Circle community) or a Discord channel.
- Commit to keep coming back, to step a little bit more out of your comfort zone each time.
For me: I joined David’s Write of Passage course and Anne Laure’s Ness Labs community, started showing up at Anna Gat’s Interintellect salons, and actively participated in RBC.
Taking bold action – like showing up to a workshop, joining a breakout room, or initiating contact with someone whom you’ve never met takes courage – but I assure you it’s worth it. I think you will find that these nourishing communities welcome and encourage this kind of participation.
Find the others, and let the magical force of the Internet introduce you to the people who might just become your best friends, your colleagues, maybe even your life partner.