The Well-Connected Community: Attending Conferences with Genetically-Enabled Foursquare

Foursquare—that lovely social media tool that helps make us aware, through geotagging capabilities, of how physically close we are to those we might not otherwise encounter—seems as if it would be a uniquely valuable tool for those of us attending conferences and trying to catch up to colleagues from across the country or around the world.

ALA_Midwinter_2013The idea that our mobile devices could take the initiative in providing us with information we hadn’t yet thought to actively solicit—e.g., finding out, through notifications, who among our friends and colleagues is nearby—is something that David Weinberger and Nova Spivack referred to as being a part of Web 3.0 in January 2009 during a presentation at an American Library Association presentation in Denver. In positing a Web 3.0 world in which our devices would alert us before we asked for the information, the two presenters clearly evoked a wide range of reactions during that session. Some people were clearly fascinated and excited by the prospect, while some of us appeared ready to crawl under the nearest rock and whimper about the loss of privacy and anonymity. Most fascinating to me, at the time, was the discovery a few days later that the sort of service Weinberger and Spivack were predicting as an innovation on its way was already in use; a quick online search today confirmed that Foursquare itself was created within months of Weinberger and Spivack’s presentation. Furthermore, one of its predecessors (Dodgeball) preceded the prediction by nearly nine years—once again proving how hard it is to be a futurist in a world where the future seems to have unfolded before we even have a chance to predict it.

nmc.logo.cmykFoursquare came back to mind during my recent participation in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas and the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting in Seattle over a seven-day period. Although there was no need for anything like Foursquare at the NMC conference—all 100 participants were staying in the same wonderful resort outside of Austin and spending our days in one beautifully accommodating meeting room—one could argue that the ALA conference, with thousands of participants bouncing back and forth between meeting rooms in the convention center in Seattle and also staying in a wide range of hotels throughout downtown Seattle, was prime Foursquare turf.

And yet I never once thought about signing up for or using Foursquare to expedite connections. From the moment I stepped onsite into Seattle’s enormous Washington State Convention Center, I began running into exactly the colleagues I hoped to see. Within my first hour there on a Friday afternoon, I had settled into a conversation in a lounge area with a colleague from Nashville. We were joined, intermittently, by colleagues from California, Chicago, and many other places. Walking the large exhibits area early that evening, I had opportunities to talk with colleagues from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dublin (Ohio), Chicago, Orlando, and many other places. In fact, a colleague I initially met earlier in the week at the NMC summit in Austin was there in Seattle, and it turned out she was sharing a room with a colleague with whom I serve on an ALA committee. (I’m left wondering whether Foursquare could have alerted me to that particular connection.) I capped off the evening with my one planned encounter: dinner with a colleague who recently left Georgia to accept a wonderful new position in Cleveland.

I suspect it’s not necessary to drag this out with an hour-by-hour description of all the similar encounters I had throughout the day on Saturday, but it’s worth noting that when I found myself unexpectedly with a completely unscheduled 90-minute block of time Sunday morning, I ran into a cherished colleague—Peggy Barber—who never manages to leave me less than completely energized by her descriptions of the projects she currently is completing. We decided to take advantage of that opportunity to go to a nearby independent coffee shop—the Caffe Ladro outlet at 801 Pine Street—that had been recommended by Seattle residents so we would have some uninterrupted time for conversation. And you surely know what came next: we ended up sitting next to a couple of other conference attendees who were close associates of a colleague from Florida.

That’s when I had another moment of revelation: neither Peggy nor I are drawn to Foursquare because we somehow have a genetically-enabled version of the product deeply embedded in our DNA.

I’m not saying I’ll never try Foursquare. But for now, it seems redundant in a world where the simple act of showing up puts me in contact with those I most cherish and who, in turn, make me glad that our incredibly connected onsite-online world somehow manages to place us in exactly the right location at exactly the right time to sustain our various communities of learning and communities of practice.

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