When I first met Josh Holmes, we had a really interesting conversation about the role technology has played in human society since its dawning about 10,000 years ago. For the longest time, people were born into a community and, because of tradition and the limited ability to travel far beyond their immediate geography, they tended to remain in that community for the rest of their lives.
As technological advances like transoceanic shipping, railroads, the automobile and airplanes came of age, people felt began to move away from their home towns, and of course, this had the effect of distancing people from each other. Many people who immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th century said goodbye to their families in "the old country," never to see them again.
As the ability to travel greater distances in shorter periods of time was developing, along came the telegraph, followed by the telephone and, eventually, the Internet. Once again, technology swings the social pendulum back in the other direction. Today, using an online social networking service like Twitter, people once separated by thousands of miles can feel like they're in the same place, enjoying a moment together any time, day or night.
How can this be anything but good? I recently saw an example that exemplified both the fantastic potential and a possible dark side of this ubiquitously connected world we live in.
Dinner With Some Friends
I was in Seattle for an internal Microsoft conference a few weeks ago and, on Tuesday night, I found myself downtown at the Tap House with a small group of softies having dinner. There were five people at the table besides myself: Brian Goldfarb, Larry Clarkin, Josh Holmes, Brian Moore, Scott Barnes and myself. As I recall, Larry was telling a story that was actually quite funny. While Larry was talking, my phone alerted me that a new message had arrived, so I very unconsciously reached down to my holster, grabbed the phone and to see what had arrived.
It turns out that I had received an SMS message via Twitter from Dave Bost, who happened to be sitting at the table next to us. He'd "tweeted" (posted an update to Twitter) on something someone said at his table and wanted to share it with his "tweeps" (those folks who follow his posts on Twitter). As I finished reading that post from Dave, Brian Moore said something very funny and I thought, as long as I was on my phone anyway, I'd share it with my tweeps. So, I wrote up a quick note and sent it.
It was then that I looked up from my phone and realized that everyone at my table (except Larry, who was still telling his story) was doing the same thing as me. All five of us had the dull, alluring glow of our cell phone backlights reflecting in our pupils. It struck me that, though only one of us was actually speaking, there were multiple silent conversations happening all around me with people unseen.
The New Social
In the social circles in which I hang, the scenario above certainly isn't all that unusual. Geeks like myself tend to travel in herds and do so with handheld devices about four inches from our faces.
What was really interesting about what I observed at the Tap House that night was how we were all compelled to share what was happening with us at that moment with people far beyond the restaurant walls. It wasn't enough to maintain the conversation at the table. The most interesting points of our "in-person experience" were distributed via Twitter and shared with people elsewhere in the world who are, apparently, interested in such things.
Certainly online communication is nothing new or novel at all. It's the blending of our real world experiences with our social networks online that strikes me as being a new dynamic, something I call "the new social."
Another perfect example of this phenomenon happened just yesterday. I had customer meeting during the big Day One keynote at the MIX conference in Las Vegas and missed the opportunity to watch it live on the MIX web site. However, about half the people I follow on Twitter were in the audience for the keynote and were tweeting every time Ray or Scott made an announcement. By the time I got to the on-demand video yesterday afternoon, I already knew everything that had been announced. I even knew which demos to pay particular attention to because I'd already read the reviews.
The whole experience made me feel like I was there, and it wasn't the dry, marketing experience I got when I went to look at the post on the MIX site. It was real people sharing their thoughts and impressions about what they were seeing right there and then, as if I were in the chair next to them and they whispered it in my ear.
This is the real power of the new social. Expanding your personal experiences to those who can't always be with you. It certainly make the world feel like a much smaller place and all of us feel more connected.
The Down Side
As with anything, there can some downsides to all this universal sharing and goodness. The good news is that I think they are relatively easy to overcome if you know what to look for.
Love the One You're With
Back to my story about about dinner in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. I remember very clearly the tweets I sent and read at the table. I remember the comments I thought were worth sharing with my network. I remember sound bytes for our conversation.
I don't remember what Larry was talking about.
I've tried, and I can't for the life of me remember what Larry was saying when I went to my phone. This is the downside to this new social. It's easy to get so swept up in what other people everywhere but where you are are doing that you forget to pay attention to what's happening right in front of you.
In a sense, this technology can bring us closer to people we rarely (or never) see, but distance us from those we happen to be sitting at a table having a nice dinner with.
Know When to Say When
The key is to not try and share every last aspect of your life with your online network. I don't think Larry will be offended when I tell him I don't remember what he was saying at the table that night because he uses the technology as well. He understands.
However, we have to stay conscious of the fact that the majority of the people in our lives don't interact with technology like people such as myself do and likely will not understand. My wife, who is no technical slouch herself, gets really annoyed when I pick up my phone and start doing something during one of our rare lunch dates without the kids, and she has every right to be. It's not that she doesn't get it, it's that I should wait until that moment of personal interaction is over before I try to share it with a group of people she doesn't know.
The New Social, Same as the Old Social
So technology unites and technology divides, but it doesn't have to. We need to develop a kind of Twitiquette to help us understand how we can leverage is powerful capability without endangering the most important relationships in our lives. Here are a few ideas I'll throw out there to get the ball rolling:
- Tell the person you're with that you want to share something with your online network instead of just grabbing your phone or PC and going to it. They might actually think it's pretty cool and it's a great opportunity for you to show them how it all works -- they might want to start doing it to!
- Don't ninja tweet, or tweet something someone said without telling them you're going to do it.
- Focus on the person in front of you now, tweet on it (a little) later. Remember that Twitter keeps a complete history of updates you can check at any time. The person you're with right now, that moment will be gone as soon as you part ways and will stay gone forever.
I'm sure there are more, but these three points might go a long way to maximizing the unifying benefits that Twitter and online social networking application can provide while reducing some of the drawbacks. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.
In fact, look me up on Twitter. My ID is @dboynton. Just don't do it while having lunch with your spouse.