Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tweetups, Good Times, and the End of the World

There is something you should know up-front. Full disclosure; this former reporter is shy to the point of absurdity at times. Anyone with this affliction can tell you it gets worse when confronted with a large group of people you have never met. Given that fact, it would seem the odds were against me when I met such a group July 23 at the Brewhaus in Springfield. However, I did have something working for me: all of us were Tweeple.

Of course, such details seemed irrelevant when I entered and knocked a table, spilling a fellow blogger’s beer. Foam of Morland Old Spekled Hen oozed over the tablecloth and spattered the blogger’s khakis. If only had such panache at all social functions.

Thankfully, he was a good and generous Twitterer, and brushed it off as we conversed about the hoppyness of the libation I spilled everywhere. I found all the Tweeple to be just as accommodating. Conversation flowed, and followers became friends. Between the occasional burst of laughter and the warmth of smiles, something became unhinged. It was as if a problem was solved; a resolution reached.

Any instance where you have a group of bloggers in a social setting, you have a bit of a conundrum. When looking at the individual blogger, you’re referring to an individual who spends a great deal of time stewing in front of a screen, expounding personal philosophy in a dearth of social interaction. After all, bloggers are a species of writer, who partake in one of the most solitary and introverted activities a human can commit to. Somehow, in spite of this, face time resulted.

Twitter is a case study of this conundrum. That’s the “microblogging” service whereby participants commit 140-character messages (“tweets”) to a place on the Web, and where other participants can elect to receive those transmissions (“following”). It’s been described as both “worthy of being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize” (Former US security adviser Mark Pfeifle), and “a big waste of time” (Late Show host David Letterman). The act of following is extroverted in the sense of expanding social connections, yet posting remains an introverted enterprise.

The “tweetup” provides resolution. It’s an event where people who use Twitter (“Tweeple,” or “Twitteratti,” depending on the number of followers) meet in person. To facilitate the process of breaking the Web barrier, this Tweetup sometimes occurs in the proximity of alcohol. Thus, it’s common for Tweetups to take place in a local pub.

Chris “Shoo” Scheufele, IT pro, local blogger and founder of the blog aggregator tweeted July 9. Word spread amongst Springfield tweeple, and support for a Springfield tweetup gained critical mass to break the Web barrier. All came together July 23, when about 15 tweeple and associated bloggers met at the Brewhaus.

“We each had something to add to the conversation,” local blogger and photographer Matt Penning later wrote. “The discussions varied wide as well as local. Putting a face to what online is a sometimes anonymous, and at other times more revealing than ‘real’ life.”

Penning, like many of the bloggers there, came with some hesitancy. This writer must admit the same feelings, especially after he so elegantly bumped a table and spilled beer. The collective interest in blogging, however, provided a convenient talking point, which helped.
To be sure, the July 23 event wasn’t the first ever Tweetup in Springfield. That honor most likely goes to the Elgin Day lobby, who organized a get-together February 25. The Elgin Day Lobby, organized to promote issues surrounding “manufacturing, healthcare, education and community sustainability” in Elgin, IL, promoted the tweetup ahead of a meeting with members of the Illinois General Assembly.

Despite some Springfield Tweeple in attendance (@gotshoo and @mochamomma, to name a few), the PR-centric motives of the event and the lobby that organized it forces the question of authenticity. There was a Tweetup in Springfield, but was it truly a Springfield Tweetup? The answer depends on perspective.

Rewinding to the idea of Tweetup as a resolution, I think of a freelance writer in Seattle, Washington, who lives near the center of the information revolution. Lisa Albers, a transplant from the Midwest, is a former reporter for the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She writes in her blog how the social culture of Seattle, coupled with advances in communication technology, grows a scary, new kind of alienation.

“… the tech culture has made it so that everyone here is wired, but few are really connecting. We all have at least 50 Facebook friends, a hundred Twitter followers, and a few hundred LinkedIn connections; we’re texting and e-mailing and posting status updates and commenting on and sharing articles online with our peeps all day and night long. We go to art gallery openings and house parties and concerts to see a zillion of our closest friends, but even when we’re there, in the flesh having a face-to-face with a human being, we have an iPhone in hand; we’re texting and checking our messages and going online to find out where the next event is.” Albers says. “This is happening to social culture the world over, true, but like grunge, it seems to have originated here. When it comes to human relationships, we’re all multi-tasking.”

Most revolutions in technology and society can be traced back to ideas that writers penned eons ago, especially science fiction writers. In many cases, these writers use their imaginations to explore the potential dangers hidden in scientific advancement. Take, for example, E.M. Forster’s vision of a world where life is as easy as pressing a button. There’s a button for music, a button for clothing. There’s a button for a hot bath, and a button for literature. There’s a button to open the door and summon transportation, too, but it’s rarely used. Travel in this era is considered superfluous, because all places on earth now look alike.

Also, people of this future speak mainly through tubes:

“The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.”

Face-to-face communication withers. The narrative continues, and people devolve further into an informationless, inhuman abyss. They become scared of firsthand experiences:

“And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. “Beware of first-hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. “First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by live and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element--direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine--the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought LafcadioHearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution.”

As the regression continues, people become more distant, and less information is exchanged. Gradually, it is forgotten how to fix the machine which the society revolves around. The people are helpless when their world crashes down on them.

Are Tweetups a solution to a societal death-spiral of social awkwardness? I posed the question to a trusted friend, who doesn’t Tweet, and wasn’t that impressed. Even though I met up with a group of people from the same geographic location, he insisted, it couldn’t have happened without Twitter. Without the tool, and without the initiative to meet total strangers, I wouldn’t have known of these people. In other words, the social experience was dependant on the tool, not the other way around.

Do we come out ahead? Break even? A social experience happened. A circle of friends was expanded. But perhaps, behind the scenes, had dollars been traded for pennies?


bluefox864 said...

Some interesting ideas here.

It's true that our generation, and the younger ones, are losing touch with society. We are becoming less socially adept and (seemingly) more introverted as technology advances, interacting anonymously behind computer screens. Kids these days don't know how to give decent customer service or carry a conversation to save their life *brandishes old man cane*.

However, humans are social animals. Ever since the Internet became public, people have been using the web to meet new people face to face. How else could social networking sites or even dating sites be so popular?
We Springfield Bloggers have formed a sense of community online, and I believe it was clearly the next step to meet each other in person. Although, I think the allure of alcohol after a day's work helped.

It's 2009, and 2010 is around the corner. If Marty McFly is correct, we'll have flying cars and hoverboards soon. There will always be some kind of technology that changes society and human culture in some way. I think the real question is will you fight the inevitable kicking and screaming, or will you adapt and find a way to enrich your life with it?

Anonymous said...

I'm flattered to be quoted here, and thanks for the reminder about EM Forster's work. Interesting conversation going on there in Sprngfield, both over beer and online.