Here, but not here

David Strom makes an interesting observation in this week’s Web Informant newsletter  (August 21, 2012: The dichotomy of virtual friendship). 

I had a meeting yesterday that drove home the dichotomy of our virtual connections. It was supposed to be a standard have-a-drink-to-meet-the-vendor-after-the-conference kind of thing, a chance to see a new company (who will remain nameless) at the Gartner
Catalyst show that I am attending and covering for HP’s Input/Output website this week in San Diego.

I had never met anyone from the vendor, nor my intended companion, but both sounded interesting. He brought along his chief nerd and the meeting started falling apart quickly, as Mr. N (let’s call him that) proceeded to fiddle with his iPad. I thought he was queuing up a
presentation or a demo for me, so I didn’t give it much thought.

But then I noticed something odd: as long as I was talking to my companion, the marcom guy, N wasn’t part of the conversation. When I asked a technical question, N immediately piped up with an extended and quite cogent answer. It was as if he was present in two different places: online (or in iSpace, or whatever he was doing with his tablet) and in the here and now, part of my press briefing. It was a bit offputting, to say the least.

It became clear that N was socially inept, perhaps somewhere that could be diagnosed, and didn’t want to be part of my briefing. He also brought along his smartphone, and just as I thought I would get at least a nanosecond of his direct attention, he picked that up and started messing with that.

In all of my years of taking these kinds of meetings, this was a new one for me.

It brought home the point: Never have we have so connected virtually and so removed when we are in person.

I have seen this plenty. It’s a common affliction in the tech industry, especially at conferences. People lurk on the periphery, passive monitoring, and activate their attention to the present situation only when their filter detects a cue for them to contribute.  

I actually think this is behaviour from conference calls carried over into real life. 

Due to poor meeting discipline, so many people on conference calls are unneeded, most put on mute and crack on with their workday, paying minimal “continuous partial attention” to the discussion. 

When they are questioned directly or hear something they want to comment on, their attention snaps to the call. 

How often have you heard someone being addressed on a conference call, only to have dead air as they scramble to unmute and try to recall what was just being discussed?

Attention really is the gold (or Tulips) of the 21st century.