Even before the pandemic there was a shift in how people connected around things they care about. But let’s look even further back in the wee days of the internet, circa 2000.
Robert Putnam wrote an essay, Bowling Alone, in 1995 and then parlayed it into a book in 2000. Putnam pointed towards a pattern shift in how Americans spend their free time. The author worried that people didn’t belong to organizations or socialize the way they used to.
Widespread adoption of the internet and the rapid emergence of social media changed things. As with most things, these changes were both good and bad. And what you consider good and bad depends a lot on your perspective. Let’s focus on what my ninth grade math teacher called “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.” Or the things most people can agree on.
The early days of the internet were wild and wonderful, and also super awkward. Years later, I joked I didn’t want to use Snapchat until it stopped looking like early Geocities websites.
It was also a change from which you can’t go back.
People were able to connect with other people around the world and chat about similar interests.
In real time.
With a super intimate format that felt different from a phone call.
I know you know this. But remember: 1990s people did not know this was possible. Until they experienced it.
While Putnam wrote about the end of social connections, a manifesto emerged on why the internet was all about conversation. The Cluetrain Manifesto was super prescient in pointing towards the importance of the human voice.
“This fervid desire for the Web bespeaks a longing so intense that it can only be understood as spiritual. A longing indicates that something is missing in our lives. What is missing is the sound of the human voice.”
- David Weinberger, The Longing, The Cluetrain Manifesto
I feel like a sociologist studying to decode and understand early Internet culture. Even though I lived through it. But even I chuckled while re-reading The Cluetrain Manifesto. We called things newsgroups. LOL.
The software industry’s culture of user groups and meetups emerged to build connections based on common interests.
Most groups eventually gravitated towards a seamless combination of online and in real life events and interactions.
Then something happened again.
Social media algorithms and rapid polarization of online interactions created fractures. Staying connected with so many people and groups also led to a tendency to feel overwhelmed. People started having trouble sleeping and now we know about blue light. Entire companies started around the idea of unplugging.
Cracks emerged with in-person event attendance. I worked in the theatre industry for a decade, amidst the emergence of streaming. Making the effort to go out was not as attractive as turning on Netflix and relaxing after a long day at work.
In 2019, a local meetup group I frequented began to experience reduced attendance. Leadership stepped down because of big career changes and hectic schedules. The local meetup pretty much fizzled out.
Too much of a good thing is a bad thing? Maybe. And I’m also coming at this from the perspective of having two kids under the age of 10 at the time.
When the pandemic hit, many people felt both notification overload, and a craving to connect with other humans. Two weeks in, I went into my phone settings and turned off every single notification for every app. At the same time, my three siblings and I started a group chat and a weekly family Zoom.
Last year it felt like things were starting to shift back to a mix of virtual and in-person.
Conferences, meetups, and performances have all been slow to shift attendance patterns. It’s still hard to forecast what in-person attendance will be for any given event.
Inflation is impacting the cost of events. Economic uncertainty means cuts to conference budgets. Not gonna lie, it’s good to have lower-cost virtual conference and workshop options.
These things are swirling together to make what feels like a liminal moment. We’re still missing connecting with others around the things we care about. But it’s not a binary in-person vs. virtual flash point. That misses the real depth of the Cluetrain conversation and why we all crave community.
We’ve been deep in our feels about this at Test Double.
“One definition of community is a group of people who care about each other more than they have to. This isn’t a business exchange, even remotely. It is conversation, the verbal glue binding people separated by geography into community.”
- David Weinberger, The Longing, The Cluetrain Manifesto
2023 has been a return to many things for us. A mini-retreat of sorts at RailsConf with 22 double agents attending. An in-person retreat in June.
Throughout the past three years, we’ve also appreciated the ways we come together as a 100% remote company. Our active Slack community. Virtual meetups around common interests: Test Driven Development, Functional Programming, DevOps, book clubs.
We want to bring that feeling of connection back to more people. You can’t understand software without understanding people.
So we’re creating a community called N.E.A.T., because Not Everything’s About Technology.
If that belief strikes you deep in your soul, come join us. You can sign up for the waitlist here, and we’ll notify you when the community launches.
We imagine this community will bring back some of the energy we’ve all missed from:
- online user groups and in-person meetups (what are the things we love from both?)
- personal DMs and public Twitter threads (the not-awful ones, naturally)
- async forum help and connecting with people in real-time conversation (let’s figure things out together and share what we learn)
Let’s bring back some of the magic around connecting with other humans who care about the same things we do. Wouldn’t that be neat?