Is Asperger’s Contagious?

Forgive the possibly offensive title of this post. I’ll explain. I attended the first day of the Mesh 2008 conference today here in Toronto. This is a brand new conference for me, although it’s now in its third year. Although I have online and offline relationships of varying degrees with perhaps a dozen people who were attending, I still found the “networking” to be incredibly stressful. In fact, at lunch, I bailed completely and went off to eat on my own, despite the fact that there was a free catered lunch available at the MaRS Centre, the conference venue. It felt too much like the first day of high school in the school cafeteria for me. So you’ll know where I’m coming from when I talk about one of the sessions I attended.

CBC Radio’s Nora Young hosts a radio program called Spark! and her session was being taped for later broadcast as a show. She spoke with Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton on the subject “Does Location Matter?” which I thought would be about the benefits of telecommuting. It turned out to be mostly about the advances in video conferencing software and how to use it to work and socialize virtually with our colleagues and friends. It was fascinating stuff, but I was hoping the conversation would be broader.

We interact in a variety of ways with others online, but it’s mostly in the course of doing several other things at the same time. I can post a Twitter message, comment on a blog, and carry on an IM conversation all at the same time, possibly interacting with three different people, while at the same time writing in Microsoft Word or working with an image in Photoshop. I call these “micro-interactions” because they usually involve very little time, and are usually quite focussed on a particular subject or question. I’m reacting to a specific thing the other person has posted, for instance. These interactions have a defined purpose and they require little etiquette because online, interruptions can be dealt with later.

I’m finding more and more, though, that when I meet some of these same people offline, I’m finding the interactions more difficult. The idea of giving or getting “full attention” seems a bit overwhelming. I often fear that in offline situations, we won’t have enough conversation to keep things running smoothly. I also dread the awkwardness of introductions and departures, and knowing how long to just “hang around.” These are all non-issues with people I’ve met and known offline, because there is established etiquette. But I find that the more we interact online, the more awkward we get when we can’t interact the same way in the physical world. Among even good friends whom I’ve met online, our face-to-face interactions can sometimes feel awkward. “Just hanging out” can be difficult without some issue or topic to focus our energies toward.

Paul Collins tells a funny but illuminating story in his book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism. He describes a speaking engagement at Microsoft in which the heads of more than half the audience are down over their laptops, a scene familiar to many conference speakers nowadays. When he asks what’s going on, his host tells him the audience members are watching the streaming video broadcast of the very talk they’re attending. It’s joked that many web geeks are probably mildly autistic, and that their legendary social awkwardness may actually be symptomatic of Asperger’s Syndrome, but it’s not really a joke.

The incidence of autism in general is rising rapidly; some statistics say it now affects one in 100 births. It’s interesting to me that the number is rising just as more and more of our social interactions are moving online. If I’m finding my own feelings and confidence around social interactions changing, I wonder how it will be for the generation of children who are growing up with the sort of “micro-interactions” I’ve described earlier?

Now all of this could just be unique to me. Maybe I’m just having a bad day socially. But I’m glad that it forced me to think about some of these issues. I’m very curious to see what others think about this. Feel free to comment below, or should you see me wandering around at Mesh tomorrow, by all means stop me. At least we’ll have a defined topic to discuss. 🙂

Terry Fallis Wins Leacock Medal

Here’s a wonderful story. Terry Fallis is one of the founders of Thornley-Fallis Public Relations, one of the most social media-savvy PR firms around. Terry wrote and self-published a political satire last year called The Best Laid Plans. Not only did he publish it himself, but he used the book’s web site to market and promote it. As befits an innovative PR practitioner, he used all the social media tools at his disposal, making the whole endeavour a truly DIY affair.

About a month ago, Terry was nominated for the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, in the company of such literary luminaries as Douglas Coupland and Will Ferguson. The happy ending came this morning, when he found out that he had won. Bravo, Terry!

Job Description 2.0

David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR, has an interesting blog entry about what a job description for a marketing or public relations practitioner should sound like in this new age of social media. I think the main quality required is curiosity:

You’re curious about new things and always try stuff like Skype, Second Life, Twitter, Ryze, XING, digg, and reddit early.

People who are willing to try new things and are not afraid of a little dabbling should be getting work. Perhaps this is what Joe Thornley was getting at in his assertion that he won’t hire people who don’t blog. I reacted strongly to that statement, but I can definitely see where he and others like him are coming from. They want people who are using the tools already, who don’t have to be taught to use them. But that’s where the educators can seem just a little off base. You can’t teach curiosity, or passion. Joe feels he can figure out who someone is from reading their blog and following their online trail, and he’s right. But should educators be counseling people to create these things in the first place? I mean, if a 50 year old professor has to tell a 20 year old student about new technologies on the web, then something feels amiss.

Social Media, Unrequited

I spent a very educational evening tonight at the Talk Is Cheap “unconference” on Social Media, held at Centennial College‘s slightly inaccessible Carlaw campus, the Centre for Creative Communications. It was a free event that brought together around 200 people, mostly public relations and corporate communications practitioners. As such, it wasn’t directly related to my job, but for someone who’s desperately trying to advocate “social media” and “Web 2.0” stuff at PricewaterhouseCoopers, it was food for my soul. Not so much in terms of content, though, as I’d have to say I probably know more about these issues than most of the people in attendance. My problem is that I’ve never held a career position that allowed me to actually apply all this knowledge. And so my passion for blogs and the like has largely gone unrequited throughout the course of my professional career(s).

This became apparent as I listened to several very good speakers, like Joe Thornley and Michael O’Connor Clarke, both of Thornley Fallis (whose employees actually communicate with me regularly in their capacity as PR agents for ThinkFilm, whose films I review for Toronto Screen Shots. Small world sometimes.) Thornley Fallis is a small Canadian public relations firm who have made great use of social media and established a reputation as leaders in helping their clients apply that knowledge. I found myself envious of working in an environment like that, and thought, perhaps foolishly, that maybe I should be working in public relations instead. But I can clearly see that my apparent zigs and zags, career-wise, are attempts to find that ideal environment where I can apply my skills and passions to the fullest while still making a decent amount of money. While I’m not going to be hasty, maybe I should examine whether my skills and experience as a web-savvy writer might be better applied in a field that is embracing social media.

While I can foresee that PwC might call upon my experience in a limited way, it’s a large firm. So large that even after several months, I still feel like I’m learning what they do. It also feels very decentralized and finding the right person to talk to takes a fair amount of work. I haven’t been there long enough to have a truly informed opinion, but my initial impression is that they’re using cumbersome and limiting technology to publish their web site. As well, they’ve separated my job function from the actual coding of web pages, so that I’m working only in Microsoft Word, writing content that someone else will mark up. So it may be too soon to tell if PwC will be a long-term home for me, or if I just have a perennially roving eye. I’m trying to get some insight into myself, anyway, and tonight was useful.