The power of personalisation

A piece looking at the strange radicalism of personal appearances and meetings in a digital age, first published on First Drafts, August 2010

I’ve written a science and technology piece for Prospect‘s September issue about attending the TED Global and SciFoo conferences. They’re very different events, but have what I felt were a few key factors in common: intellectual passion, interpersonal contact, interdisciplinary mingling, and—most intriguingly of all—an emphasis on quelling the social media tumult for a few hours. While events at each are in progress, the expectation is that there will be little or no blogging, tweeting, browsing or multitasking. You’re there to give other people your full and undivided attention.

At both events, the other people were well worth this. Each experience was fantastic, thanks to the quality of those in attendance and of the conversations that were had. It was interesting, though, to note just how radical this kind of interpersonal mingling and engagement felt. I’m so used, online, to encountering words and ideas in free-flowing disembodiment that finding them attached to living, breathing, idiosyncratic others verged on feeling shocking.

I was thinking along these lines again this weekend. I was in Edinburgh, speaking at a couple of events relating to my book about videogaming culture, Fun Inc (my Prospect colleague, Mary, reported from a rather different Fringe experience earlier this month). People came to hear me speak—which was nice, of course. But, given how much of “me” can be found online with a few clicks and keystrokes, what exactly was it that they gained from coming along in person?

The chance to attach a face and a body to a set of ideas is, above all, an opportunity to arrive at a completely different kind of judgement to any you can form at a distance. Not that this means a better judgement: my ideas are much more clearly and fully explained in my book and articles than when I précis them on a stage. But because it offers a chance to weigh knottier matters than mere ideas. Like—do I trust this person; do they really mean what they’re saying; are their written and spoken words of a piece; should I take the plunge and buy their book, or offer to buy them a beer?

All of this might sound crushingly, horribly obvious. And yet, every day, digital culture asks us to treat the glimpses of other people we are given by words and images as a complete, functioning version of “them.” We fill in the gaps and don’t even notice we’re doing it: thanks to Twitter and Facebook, we feel closely and continually connected to people we may not have seen in the flesh for months, or even have never met. It’s powerful, and great, and very useful. But it’s also misleading in ways we may not even notice. We’re constantly making assumptions; we’re conjuring versions of others’ lives and ideas that may be quite remote from the realities they’re living.

All of which may just be another way of restating another ancient truth. I really do need to get out more…