I Follow You
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.