To understand why in-person connections still matter in a digital world, look no further than your friendly neighborhood tech scene. That’s where some of the area’s busiest and savviest digital connoisseurs get together as many as a couple times a week with people they can more easily find — and often already know — on Facebook or Twitter.
If we’re all so connected, why do we bother showing up to any of an ever-expanding, ever-diversifying catalog of local events?
I went to three tech-related events last Thursday. I didn’t think I’d make it to two. But there I was, between the hours of 7 p.m. and 11, introducing fellow photo sharers at the Seattle Trover Gallery show, shaking hands with a woman I’d followed on Twitter for years at the Nordstrom “Fashion’s Night Out” tweetup and crooning Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to my Window” to Karianne Stinson and other brave souls at Tech Karaoke. It was exhausting. And it was fun.
But there’s a bigger reason we geeks flock to events “IRL.” Or, at least, a bigger purpose. When we’re together, circumstances conspire much more strongly to get us to do much more quickly two things that boost the tech scene — meet new people and share our knowledge.
Sound easy? It’s not.
First off, as social as we think we are, meeting new people can be draining. We’d rather hang out with people we know. Sometimes we need extra motivation to break out of our regular circles. Food works. And the bar. But we have to pour ourselves the courage cocktail that blends a serendipitous mood with the confidence that yes, we can carry on a conversation with a stranger.
Then comes the knowledge part. Seattle supplies plenty of weather talk, but even if you and your new friend find the coolest way to curse the clouds, you know it’s a means to an end. OK, we agree on the weather. What’s his take on Klout? Luckily, local events offer less hazy ways to get you where you need to go. “Which one’s your session?” “Are you on a team yet?” “What’d you think of that Ignite talk?”
It was an Ignite, actually, that changed everything for me — Ignite Seattle 2 in February 2007. It was my first Ignite, my second month in Seattle, and one of my first weeks building a beat around technology culture for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I met Ignite co-founders Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis, asked a few questions of anyone who’d chat, stood around awkwardly with pen and notebook, and sat down on the Capitol Hill Arts Center’s floor, finally, to hear the featured five-minute talks.
When the lights came up, everyone looked different. Those ideas were amazing. Who are these people? Soon I’d learn that I’d find in them the support for technology in journalism that I couldn’t find in the newsroom. Later, I’d give my own Ignite talk. Eventually, I’d stop just covering the tech scene, and join it.
Communities are strongest when a steady stream of genuine passions circulate within them. The polished accounts of tech misadventures in blogs and on Twitter are great, but they’re not always as true, as useful, or as moving as the ideas people will share in person, or even the raw, uninterpreted truths we keep locked in our own minds.
Trust takes time to build online, but in a loud room, an introduction, a knowing smile and the right course in conversation can be all it takes to shake loose a few great ideas, build a few promising relationships and strengthen the Seattle tech community, so it can strengthen all of us. There’s a whole menu of options.
See you soon.
Mónica Guzmán is a Seattle journalist and community strategist who consults for startups and media and can usually be found tweeting away at @moniguzman. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.