I Follow You

I'm following you.

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/119514

It’s no secret that, like a sizable population of the internet community, I like using Twitter as a point of reference.

This past weekend was the first Barcamp in Philadelphia, which was a phenomenal experience. I was extremely proud of the volunteer team who put it together, led by JP Toto and Roz Duffy. Brilliant work. Absolutely brilliant. When’s the next one? :)

I’ve been to Barcamps before, and plenty of other conference settings. For a lot of attendees of BarCamp Philly, this was their first BarCamp (I surveyed the room during the kickoff announcements and it was a 90%+ “Barcamp Virgin” attendance). I’m sure for many, it was also an early foray into conferences/unconferences. At the same time, there were a good number of seasoned veterans.

This diversity and ratio of first timers got me thinking about the social graces of these types of events, and how they’ve changed. Historically, it’s been a ripe opportunity for meeting people, either randomly or more systematically. But introductions still played a crucial part in the interaction: you had better odds of having a positive engagement with another attendee with a foot in the door introduction.

But things have changed. We read each others’ blogs, we follow each other on twitter. We know an unusual amount about each other (that’s not to say we know everything about one another), and that’s not a bad thing; it lowers the barrier to entry to get to know someone better face to face. I like that.

So make up your mind, Alex. Are you bitching or not?

I want to go back to a metaphor that I’ve written about a couple of times, most recently on a Mashable post about coworking. I talk about coworking as an offline manifestation of the types of interactions that go on in an online forum. The broader explanation is that as geeks, we’re inherently incompetent in social engagement </broad generalizations>. The other thing is that geeks tend to be really good at reverse engineering things.

So we’ve reverse engineered our social deficiencies into a set of tools we’re more comfortable working within: software, social networking tools, etc. We get a chance to practice social engagement in these safe online constructs, and over time, shed the chrysalis and emerge into the real world again in coworking spaces, barcamps, conferences, etc.

Here’s where I’m gonna start bitching:

I don’t think every-one’s doing a great job of handling the transition from online social graces to offline social graces. The translations are taking place too literally rather than people taking lessons and actually applying them.

Here’s a couple of concrete examples of oddball experiences that I was involved in and illustrate both sides of the point that I want to make.

I’m thinking back to two specific examples from SXSW, two from ’07 and one from ’08.

Anecdote #1: I was pretty green in my career in interactive, and was attending SXSW for the first time. I’d come to a lot of realizations about how level the playing field was, and how low the barrier to entry was to brush shoulders with those who’d inspired me. I think it was at a Yahoo! party that I met Jeremy Keith. While I thought I’d been doing a good job of keeping my cool while meeting various notable people from the internet community, I flubbed in front of Jeremy. I was introduced to him and promptly made the situation extremely uncomfortable by saying, “Hey Jeremy, I know way more about you than you know about me”. I can confidently say that it was MEANT as a compliment, but regardless of the intentions, I sounded like a psychopathic stalker. I excused myself and got a drink, found some friends, and sulked in a corner. I THINK at this point Jeremy knows I’m not a nutjob stalker, but at the moment, he had to have been mortified.

Anecdote #2: I was attending SXSW for the second time, and after a particularly successful year between the first year and the second. My work with IndyHall had given me a taste of what it’s like to work in the public eye, and I was certainly comfortable with it. Ask anyone who’s known me since I was a kid, I’m not afraid of people, a microphone, or a stage. But I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for this choice encounter: I was walking through the Austin Convention Center and a guy walked up to me. He pointed and said, “you’re alexknowshtml on twitter, right?”. I cautiously responded “yes”, to which he enthusiastically replied, “DUDE! I TOTALLY FOLLOW YOU ON TWITTER!!!” and gestured for a high five. Clearly he meant it as a compliment, but in my head, it rang with a similar tone to my mishap with Jeremy the year before. I shook it off and took it as the compliment it was intended to be, but it’s still something I think about when meeting people I admire.

I try not to make relationship assumptions based on the “relationships” that are established online.

So yesterday at Barcamp I paid attention to how Twitter, and general online identity, play into real world engagements. Many people do a great job of engaging and use their knowledge of the people in the atmosphere as an opportunity to get what they seek out of a room or a situation. I think that’s the most effective thing to do with the knowledge you can gain from following some-one’s online persona.

But thinking hard, maybe too hard, about the common utterance of “I follow you” and “Are you following me?”, it just sounds weird.

I know to some degree we’re just talking about a new vernacular, but to an outsider, this HAS TO APPEAR LOONY!!

My overarching point is this: consider your choice of words in these interactions, because these are the sorts of activities that will ultimately hurt the adoption of the things that we’ve learned to love (obsess over) by the masses. These interactions are absolutely critical and I firmly believe they are the future of how we’ll interact, both socially and in business.

Think about the lessons that you can learn from online interactions and apply them to your “IRL” interactions, rather than direct translations that ultimately end up making you look, well, pretty friggin’ creepy.

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  • http://judsoncollier.com Judson Collier

    It’s hilariously creepy.

    I was at a concert once, and the bassist was a light twitter user. Not sure he totally grasped the concept of twitter yet because when I met him after the concert there was some real awkward creeper vibes.

  • http://judsoncollier.com Judson Collier

    It’s hilariously creepy.

    I was at a concert once, and the bassist was a light twitter user. Not sure he totally grasped the concept of twitter yet because when I met him after the concert there was some real awkward creeper vibes.

  • http://tonybacigalupo.com Tony Bacigalupo

    I go out of my way to not tell people whether I follow them on Twitter when I meet them, and further, if a friend tells me a story that I already read about on their Twitter stream, I don’t tell them that I know about it already.

    Few things are better conversation killers than constantly shooting down each other’s stories with “yeah, I know already… you Tweeted it.”

  • http://tonybacigalupo.com Tony Bacigalupo

    I go out of my way to not tell people whether I follow them on Twitter when I meet them, and further, if a friend tells me a story that I already read about on their Twitter stream, I don’t tell them that I know about it already.

    Few things are better conversation killers than constantly shooting down each other’s stories with “yeah, I know already… you Tweeted it.”

  • http://twitter.com/alexknowshtml/statuses/997778247 alexknowshtml (Alex Hillman)

    more on the thoughts from earlier this morning about saying “I follow you” http://tinyurl.com/67rumn

  • http://rorowe.blogspot.com Robert Rowe

    It’s weird to admit this, but I committed the “Oh, you’re Alex.” when I showed up at the BarCamp Philly kick-off party. Following people on Twitter got me to BarCamp in the first place. I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on social media, or “social” anything, but your post hit a nerve, and it’s definitely making me think.

  • http://rorowe.blogspot.com Robert Rowe

    It’s weird to admit this, but I committed the “Oh, you’re Alex.” when I showed up at the BarCamp Philly kick-off party. Following people on Twitter got me to BarCamp in the first place. I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on social media, or “social” anything, but your post hit a nerve, and it’s definitely making me think.

  • http://alexhillman.myopenid.com Alex Hillman

    @Robert Rowe: Sweet. That was the intent: not to call anyone out, but point out that I’ve experienced both sides of the fence and it’s weird no matter which side of the encounter you’re on.

    It was way cool to meet you this weekend and glad that you came out! Hope to see you around more :)

  • http://alexhillman.myopenid.com Alex Hillman

    @Robert Rowe: Sweet. That was the intent: not to call anyone out, but point out that I’ve experienced both sides of the fence and it’s weird no matter which side of the encounter you’re on.

    It was way cool to meet you this weekend and glad that you came out! Hope to see you around more :)

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  • http://srcasm.com Jesse Middleton

    This type of thing has been happening for a long time on the internet starting with dating websites. When sites like match.com came out, people would learn about the other person, study them and finally reach out to them through either a 1-to-1 conversation or a group setting. It could strike lead to a strange conversation of, “Oh how is your dog Scrappy doing since his surgery on his hip?” long before you even get to chat.

    What’s weirder in this situation (on Twitter) is people broadcast in small bursts. So unless you’re paying attention all the time (or reading back in the Twitter stream), you may get things much more out of context. When you meet up in real life, those strange conversations could take a turn for the worst when you don’t know the whole story.

  • http://srcasm.com Jesse Middleton

    This type of thing has been happening for a long time on the internet starting with dating websites. When sites like match.com came out, people would learn about the other person, study them and finally reach out to them through either a 1-to-1 conversation or a group setting. It could strike lead to a strange conversation of, “Oh how is your dog Scrappy doing since his surgery on his hip?” long before you even get to chat.

    What’s weirder in this situation (on Twitter) is people broadcast in small bursts. So unless you’re paying attention all the time (or reading back in the Twitter stream), you may get things much more out of context. When you meet up in real life, those strange conversations could take a turn for the worst when you don’t know the whole story.

  • http://alexhillman.myopenid.com Alex Hillman

    @Jesse Middleton: There’s even more to consider: intent. With dating sites, there’s a clear cut “purpose” for posting certain information.

    I buy into your theory of “ego” as the juice that powers social network sites (not posted here, but we’ve talked offline enough), but I don’t think it’s the only variable factored into intent.

  • http://alexhillman.myopenid.com Alex Hillman

    @Jesse Middleton: There’s even more to consider: intent. With dating sites, there’s a clear cut “purpose” for posting certain information.

    I buy into your theory of “ego” as the juice that powers social network sites (not posted here, but we’ve talked offline enough), but I don’t think it’s the only variable factored into intent.

  • http://www.fororchestra.com WaltRibeiro

    I agree, these connections we make online and the services we use are absolutely geared in the direction of changing how we connect and stay connected through our private lives and through business.

    BTW I tend to not worry too much about first impressions. Partly because I usually am not myself when I worry, and because I don’t take first impressions too literal on my end when others approach me. I’m more about the second, third, fourth, and fifth impressions – then I make up my mind ;)

  • http://www.waltribeiro.net/ Walt Ribeiro

    I agree, these connections we make online and the services we use are absolutely geared in the direction of changing how we connect and stay connected through our private lives and through business.

    BTW I tend to not worry too much about first impressions. Partly because I usually am not myself when I worry, and because I don’t take first impressions too literal on my end when others approach me. I’m more about the second, third, fourth, and fifth impressions – then I make up my mind ;)

  • http://timoni.org timoni

    I agree with your central point that it’s not good to ‘make relationship assumptions based on the “relationships” that are established online.’ But your post does leave something to be desired; for better or for worse, interacting socially online means we do know more about each other than we would have, say, ten years ago. Clearly the average joe hasn’t had to deal with this before; celebrities do, of course, but they have professional help.

    I’m sure the Increasingly Connected will muddle their way through somehow, but certainly there has to be a better way than pretending ignorance, or, worse, as tony mentioned above, flat-out deception. I personally prefer a bit of honesty (“I’ve followed your blog for years!”) but if “following” still sounds awkward to you, maybe there’s some other way to signify that you you know of each other by internet reputation, if not personally. Like a gang sign. Or a t-shirt. Or another social network.

  • http://timoni.org timoni

    I agree with your central point that it’s not good to ‘make relationship assumptions based on the “relationships” that are established online.’ But your post does leave something to be desired; for better or for worse, interacting socially online means we do know more about each other than we would have, say, ten years ago. Clearly the average joe hasn’t had to deal with this before; celebrities do, of course, but they have professional help.

    I’m sure the Increasingly Connected will muddle their way through somehow, but certainly there has to be a better way than pretending ignorance, or, worse, as tony mentioned above, flat-out deception. I personally prefer a bit of honesty (“I’ve followed your blog for years!”) but if “following” still sounds awkward to you, maybe there’s some other way to signify that you you know of each other by internet reputation, if not personally. Like a gang sign. Or a t-shirt. Or another social network.

  • http://alexhillman.myopenid.com Alex Hillman

    @timoni: you’re quite right, I’m not suggesting that we reverse the benefits (and detraction) of knowing more about each other.

    Thinking about this in a sense of tribal communities and their inner workings, your notion of gang signs and t-shirts aren’t outlandish. I mean, they are…but what they represent isn’t.

    I’m honestly less worried about the individual circles that this happens within. It really gets the weirdest where those circles overlap, and most weird when the circles overlap with those who aren’t as used to the hyper connected and our idiosyncrasies.

    Average Joe may not know why he’s on facebook yet, and how’s he going to react when he has his first oddball encounter like the ones we’re describing? Will he be ready to be as accepting of it as a norm as we are? Or will he firmly reject it and put us back to square one on a meter of <air quotes>progress</air quotes>.

  • http://alexhillman.myopenid.com Alex Hillman

    @timoni: you’re quite right, I’m not suggesting that we reverse the benefits (and detraction) of knowing more about each other.

    Thinking about this in a sense of tribal communities and their inner workings, your notion of gang signs and t-shirts aren’t outlandish. I mean, they are…but what they represent isn’t.

    I’m honestly less worried about the individual circles that this happens within. It really gets the weirdest where those circles overlap, and most weird when the circles overlap with those who aren’t as used to the hyper connected and our idiosyncrasies.

    Average Joe may not know why he’s on facebook yet, and how’s he going to react when he has his first oddball encounter like the ones we’re describing? Will he be ready to be as accepting of it as a norm as we are? Or will he firmly reject it and put us back to square one on a meter of <air quotes>progress</air quotes>.

  • http://spiral-scratch.blogspot.com/ Liz

    Well, I wanted to say hi to you because I followed you on Twitter in the past. It was just a way to break the ice. I’m not sure what a better way to introduce yourself to someone you already know a little bit about would be. I mean, most people don’t just walk up to strangers and say, “Hi, I’m Liz. And you are (looks at name tag), Alex.” Saying that you follow someone on Twitter is just a way of making initial contact with someone. It could lead to a conversation or it could just be a way to say, “I find you interesting enough that I want to know what you think about things.”

    I was at a party the other night for a friend and when I was asked how we met and I said we met on Twitter, people looked at me funny. But, if not for Twitter, we wouldn’t have met. Now that we have met, I know them through attending events together. But if not for Twitter, we probably would never have crossed paths.

    I have to say that online relationships that move offline are much richer than simply exchanging Tweets with a person. But I now “know” hundreds of people I never would have known existed without Twitter. They aren’t all friends or people I will ever meet in person, but Twitter does serve as a useful tool for introduction to new people.

    And if people think that is “creepy”, they can always go into protected update status and just keep their messages circulated among close associates. Otherwise, it’s all public infomation and you shouldn’t be surprised at strangers knowing the details of messages you put out there.

  • Liz

    Well, I wanted to say hi to you because I followed you on Twitter in the past. It was just a way to break the ice. I’m not sure what a better way to introduce yourself to someone you already know a little bit about would be. I mean, most people don’t just walk up to strangers and say, “Hi, I’m Liz. And you are (looks at name tag), Alex.” Saying that you follow someone on Twitter is just a way of making initial contact with someone. It could lead to a conversation or it could just be a way to say, “I find you interesting enough that I want to know what you think about things.”

    I was at a party the other night for a friend and when I was asked how we met and I said we met on Twitter, people looked at me funny. But, if not for Twitter, we wouldn’t have met. Now that we have met, I know them through attending events together. But if not for Twitter, we probably would never have crossed paths.

    I have to say that online relationships that move offline are much richer than simply exchanging Tweets with a person. But I now “know” hundreds of people I never would have known existed without Twitter. They aren’t all friends or people I will ever meet in person, but Twitter does serve as a useful tool for introduction to new people.

    And if people think that is “creepy”, they can always go into protected update status and just keep their messages circulated among close associates. Otherwise, it’s all public infomation and you shouldn’t be surprised at strangers knowing the details of messages you put out there.

  • http://alexhillman.myopenid.com Alex Hillman

    @Liz: Liz, I totally agree. Fundamentally, our experiences are richer, and I too appreciate that I can “know” hundreds of people who I likely would never have encountered.

    I’m not concerned about people knowing what I’m up to, as it’s been far more beneficial than detrimental to myself and those who keep up with me on twitter. I don’t feel like I’m being intruded on. That’s also been my choice, and to many, seems absurd.

    Lucky for them, Twitter is opt-in :)

  • http://alexhillman.myopenid.com Alex Hillman

    @Liz: Liz, I totally agree. Fundamentally, our experiences are richer, and I too appreciate that I can “know” hundreds of people who I likely would never have encountered.

    I’m not concerned about people knowing what I’m up to, as it’s been far more beneficial than detrimental to myself and those who keep up with me on twitter. I don’t feel like I’m being intruded on. That’s also been my choice, and to many, seems absurd.

    Lucky for them, Twitter is opt-in :)

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  • http://www.jockscrocs.com Jeffrey

    Cool, I think I’m gonna turn on link lurve to my website :D

  • http://www.jockscrocs.com Jeffrey

    Cool, I think I’m gonna turn on link lurve to my website :D