It’s 7PM. The bar is too noisy. The air is too warm. The hard oak seat of the pub-chair has the softened finish of overworn lacquer – humid, spongy.
It’s 7:04. How are we going to recognize each other? I realize I don’t even know a real name. Will we really have anything in common? What if it’s completely awkward?
It’s 7:06. Eyes connect. A flash of half-recognition. “Are you looking for me?” I ask? “I don’t know, am I?” comes the response. The tall, long-haired geek-hippy drops his bag. I wonder if he's as nervous as I am. He takes a seat, flashes a self-conscious smile.
Our careful waltz begins.
I work in isolation, surrounded by pairs. Duplicates of everything: computers, screens, headsets, controllers. But there’s only one chair.
But just because there’s one chair does not mean I work alone, bereft of watercooler chat, workgroups and support. One of my five screens is dedicated to social interaction: 5 email accounts, 6 IM accounts, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, forums.
The tendrils of my community reach out, overlapping and branching in a nervous system of communication: old friends, gamers, writers groups, professional contacts. The interconnections are complex and ever changing. They are dendrites and axons touching and sparking in unexpected ways. My work style involves strengthening the pathways, building links with these people constantly through the course of the 10 or 12 hours I sit at the keyboard, sliding in and out of distraction and productivity. There’s no real pattern to my day, to the network, to the interactions. That’s kind of the point. It's connected chaos. It works.
I never feel alone, or out of touch. Yet half of the people in this ether I have never met. Those I know face to face I see rarely. There’s a constant disconnect with everyone, the only difference is degree. At one end are people who remain identifiable but anonymous - faceless Internet aliases that exist solely to provide competition. Less ethereal are the people I know from walled gardens. With this central core of brethren there's an interaction, an exchange of the only thing of value in a connected yet disassociated world - ideas. Occasionally these faceless companions move one step closer becoming true correspondents, trusted, respected and admired. Friends.
But even here there often remains a final chasm that often remains to be bridged. The terrifying reality of being in the same place at the same time. Face to face, I'm required to look someone in the eye and acknowledge them as human beings.
Tens of thousands of years ago, I slunk with my proto-human ancestors as they approach the valley-bottom, eyeing the tribe across the river with trepidation and excitement: friend or foe? Will they respect our lands? Will we slaughter each other in a bloodbath of gustatory conflict? A month of millennia later, sitting in the Oakland pub, the same fight-or-flight precursors run through my blood, subdued only by super-ego control.
When it comes time for the first date, the more blind I am the better. I have a lifetime of meeting strangers to draw from. I have skills I learned as a toddler well ingrained. There’s no shared history, so there is no place to be but there, in this time, in this place. But when the connections are already soldered – conversations from the past, shared victories and defeats – I have no skills. In many ways it’s like meeting a celebrity or an author: you have this sense that you know the person, but you have none of the subtle cues and that make someone truly familiar.
Within seconds of meeting someone for the first time, I make value judgements. It’s inevitable. My brain classifies the newly presented person just based on how they look, how they talk. Do they shake my hand? Dive in for a hug? Stand off nervously? How do they stand? Do they smile? Do they make eye contact? My perception of who that person *is* is based in large part on those flash perceptions.
When I get to know someone through the Internet, the relationship is entirely cerebral. I know far more about how many of my extended virtual community think than I do about people in my hometown I see every other day. In some communities (such as this one) I literally read dozens of paragraphs a day, on a huge range of topics – communication that would take an entire lunchtime face-to-face, each and every day.
This week is GenCon, my annual face-to-face Hajj. While collecting only a few threads of my network, it remains a focal point of my year, and a time when I’ll be meeting yet more people face-to-face for the first time. Even more stressful, many of these people will be meeting each other for the first time in any context, virtual or otherwise. The streams will cross, and the results can be unpredictable. It’s nerve wracking.
Will the tribes be allies, or will they succumb to their intellectual fight-or-fight reflexes?
Hypothetical bloodbaths aside, I think I've finally learned to relax about the meetings of tribes. While people are different in person than they are online, they are rarely in conflict. While the online world lets people try on new behaviors, I haven’t made a habit of associating with the folks who’s online personas are that of the ingrate and griefer.
We pull the last foam off the bottom of the beer glasses. The group of unknowns has grown in the last few hours. Watches are checked, cell phones consulted. The dance is coming to an end, but nobody wants to be the one to stand up first.
I stand up, proffer a hand. "It was great meeting you." I grab my bag, retrieve my glasses from the table. I make eye contact.