In Response to “‘Reclaiming Conversation’ at EDUCAUSE”

After a week at EDUCAUSE I’ve been catching up on my news need and happened upon this post from Josh Kim.  I feel as if this piece pre-supposes that the only kind of interaction that is valuable or useful is face-to-face interaction.

As Josh says:

Observe a group of EDUCAUSE attendees sitting in a session prior to its start, and you will see precisely nobody introducing themselves and having a conversation. Instead, we are all on our phones, laptops, and tablets.

and later:

Our favorite conversations, if we are being honest, are between ourselves and our screens.

In nearly twenty years of attending EDUCAUSE conferences, I can count on one hand the number of times I ever introduced myself to a stranger before a session.  And it had nothing to do with any conversation between myself and my screen (the first decade or so I didn’t even have a laptop to bring to a conference).  It has to do with the fact that I absolutely abhor introducing myself to random strangers.  When you really think about it, that’s what almost everyone in a session room is –  complete strangers that have only the most tenuous connection that they work in higher education IT and happened to occupy the same space at a given moment in time.  That really isn’t much to start a conversation.

I’m not denying that some (or even many) of the people in the room are using their devices to avoid conversation, but I would like to provide an alternative narrative for the behavior Josh sees.  All those people on their devices aren’t having conversations between themselves and their screen, they are having conversations with other people who don’t happen to be in the room (or sometimes they are).  Freed from temporal and spacial confines, I use my device (Twitter specifically) to catch up on a session I missed, join a conversation about some other session I didn’t see, and even encourage people to come join me for the session I’m about to attend.  I’m not disengaged from conversation, I’m hyper-engaged in it.

The interactions I’ve had via my device (again, via, not with) have made it easier to meet people in person later.  This year at EDUCAUSE I added 20 or so new people to my list of people I follow and probably have about the same number of new followers (with some overlap).  A handful of those I met in person specifically because we had engaged on twitter (like Rachael Mann, Chris Davis, and Luke VanWingerden).  I also met one or two people for the first time who I started following last year at EDUCAUSE (I’m thinking mostly of Rachel B).  And there’s at least one, despite my best efforts, I haven’t met yet even though she and I were in the same room together at least twice (I’m looking at you Melissa Rasmussen).

So even though I didn’t sit down next to some random person, invade their personal space, and push my hand into their face, I met lots of people at EDUCAUSE.  Some were people I knew from Twitter already.  I had a sense of who they were, and we could bypass the awkward dance of finding something in common to discuss.  Others I engaged via the session back channel and then found them afterwords.  A few were just random meetings, but most of those were because I presented at sessions and folks came up at the end and introduced themselves (they are apparently much braver than I).  If I had only the “shake hands with random strangers” tool I would have met almost nobody.

As I said at the beginning, Josh’s piece pre-supposes that the face-to-face interaction is the only valid interaction to be had.  If we are to move forward as a profession (that being the profession of higher education), we need to avoid prejudging new communications options and gain a better and deeper understanding of the way technology can connect us.


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5 Responses

  1. Rachel BIcicchi says:

    Thanks for writing this, Kyle. I thought the same thing when I saw this piece. While I am a bit more extroverted and do occasionally introduce myself to people sitting around me, I still would never have had the courage, as a “lowly” instructional designer, to just randomly walk up to a CIO like you or Melissa or Rae and introduce myself. However, when we’ve “met” on twitter first, it’s easier (for me at least) to approach a person. And it was good to see you again (we actually have met before, at one of the regional Educause meetings 🙂

  2. Kyle Johnson says:

    Mahalo for your comments. BTW, there is nothing lowly about an instructional designer, and I’m really sorry I didn’t remember meeting you at one of the regional meetings. That’s my bad.

    • Rachel BIcicchi says:

      In your defense, I think it was at breakfast, which would have been about 2 AM Hawai’i time, so you are forgiven!

  3. Mike says:

    One of the things I was struck by this year was a sense of fluidity between virtual and physical interactions at the conference. I feel like I was picking up conversations in one medium and transferring them seamlessly to another.

    One of my more interesting interactions was sitting at a table in the Social Media consituent group, and everyone immediately exchanging business cards. It occurred to me that the card was important as an artifact of a physical interaction, which still matters, but we wouldn’t have been in that room if it weren’t for our virtual interactions.

  4. Kent Brooks says:

    Nice piece. I have always been OK with chatting with people at conferences, but the ability to connect via social media is a total and complete game changer. I agree with Mike about the melting together of virtual and physical. It used to be that we talked about how in the world could we could use social media for more than telling people we were in line at the grocery store. This piece nails it. Nice work Kyle.

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