Cocktail hour in the Facebook age

Whether you’re a scientist, a writer, or a science communicator, most of us spend some time at conferences, or more appropriately noshing on cheese, fruit and other snacks, and sipping free wine or beer at the end of the day. And then depending on how well you know the other people in the room, you start conversations about who you are, what you do, or what you’ve been up to lately.

Last Friday, I mingled in one of these rooms, networking with my colleagues, and I was struck by how Facebook is changing these types of conversations.

First of all, I don’t routinely connect with my work colleagues on Facebook (usually Twitter or LinkedIn, first). Maybe they chose to connect with me, or I’ve had enough conversations with them that I chose to connect with them there. I’m not unusual. A Pew Internet study indicates that about 10 percent of our “friends” are colleagues. But I ran into several of them last week. And when I made conversation, I realized that many of the things that were once polite conversation starters are now old news because they’ve already had a life on Facebook.

With one colleague we almost had a little joking game about it, she says, “How are you? I saw on Facebook that your husband finished up his Ph.D. and you’re still making all that pottery.” Check and check. “So what else is going on with you?”

But I also don’t assume that people stalk my Facebook page or my Twitter feed. So, if you offer up information that already appeared elsewhere, are you being social and looping people in on life information that they might not have heard? Or are you that boring person droning on about information that the other person is hearing for the third or fourth time? Social media offers opportunities to connect with people we might never meet otherwise, and I see that as primarily positive. But it also can give us a sense of knowing people when we’ve never met them in person or a false sense that I’ve had a conversation with someone when I haven’t.

In certain ways, I feel like this idea isn’t incredibly different from my experience as a freelancer, working closely with editors who I only communicate with via email or phone. I remember meeting one long-time editor at a conference a few years ago. He was standing 10 feet from me, but asked loudly, “Is Sarah Webb here?” I’d probably written at least 15 articles for him by that point, and it was funny but natural that he wouldn’t recognize me in a crowded room.

Maybe as a journalist I’m oversensitive to the idea of what is news. But I don’t think we can completely ignore that choice to share information, and that nagging question of whether other people are interested and whether we’re beating a dead horse. For now I think I’ll take my cocktail hour lead from my colleague. Here’s what I know, and what else is new?

Image courtesy of public-domain-image.com

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