How to Take It Offline
This morning on Twitter, Marc Lynch was soliciting advice for students on blogging/tweeting. Some great responses, which I’m compiling here for future reference. Also, don’t overuse #hashtags. That’s probably the number one reason I unfollow people.
My contribution was to have a personality (easier said than done, I realize); reach out to people who you think are out of your league; and invite people out for drinks. Marc pushed back on that last, suggesting it’s perhaps problematic for young women (or men) to meet internet strangers for drinks.
In some ways, he’s absolutely right; there are crazy people on the internet (hi) and it’s dangerous and foolish to hold a Pollyanna-ish belief that nobody will do you harm. There is a real risk and there are consequences to ignoring that risk.
That said, life is risky, and meeting people from the internet is no more risky than meeting people in bars, which young women and men do all the time. In fact, I’d argue that bar people are bigger risks than internet people. You really know nothing about people you meet in bars, and you have no easy way of verifying if anything they say is true. Young people should always follow basic personal safety rules – don’t leave your drink unattended, let somebody know where you are, charge your cell phone, have cab fare, meet in public places, etc. – and by the time they’re in college, these rules should be ingrained in their behavior.
The purpose of social media for young people trying to establish themselves is to make connections and talk to people who can contribute to their intellectual and professional development. This requires reaching outside your established social circle, which naturally entails risk. Who knows if that guy you met at that networking happy hour is who he says he is? You have to rely on best available information and your gut read of the situation. I’ve attended a number of happy hours full of shady men, and while I’ve had offers of 1:1 drinks to talk shop afterwards, I’ll only go if Googling that particular individual turns up a corporate bio at a recognized company.
Meanwhile, I feel comfortable trusting people I engage with online, because there’s so much available data on that person (and if there isn’t, it’s a big red flag). For example, on Twitter, everybody has a history – you know what they’ve tweeted, you know who else they talk to, and there are a number of things to look out for. Somebody who only talks to me is suspect. Anonymous accounts are suspect. Generic names are suspect. If I can’t find somebody on Facebook or, God forbid, Google, they’re suspect. It’s actually pretty hard (though not impossible) to maintain a façade on Twitter, and most genuinely interesting people do not.
And if you’re really that suspicious, don’t discount the value of meeting in groups. Not that Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a particularly suspicious character, but when he suggested meeting for drinks after he missed a previous tweet-up, it was natural to bring several friends who had also been interacting with him online. Had I stayed home out of fear that Daveed was actually a Shabaab leader, I would have missed out on what has arguably been one of the most personally and professionally valuable friendships I’ve made this year.
Or go to tweet-ups – the national security ones that @Laurenist and I organize are open to everybody and full of fascinating, awesome people who work in think tanks, at the Pentagon, in international development, on the Hill, in journalism, etc. I love that current students have the opportunity to talk to practitioners – I think it benefits both parties, and I wish I’d had that option when I was in undergrad. We don’t bill them as networking happy hour, because they’re not about meeting people strictly for the sake of professional development, but I’ve also had some cool professional opportunities result from the friendships I’ve made over drinks at Science Club.
I choose to be an optimist about people. In my experience, most people you meet from the internet are more likely to be awkward rather than scary. As a caveat, I’ve been talking to people online for at least 15 years, and I believe my instincts, my bullshit detector, and my Google stalking skills are pretty well honed. I’m sure I’ve talked to unsavory characters online, but I’m very careful never to meet anybody face to face whose identity cannot be verified through some quick Googling. I do not put myself in situations where I don’t have an exit route, and if I feel remotely uncomfortable, I have no problem standing somebody up or making a lame excuse and hightailing it. As long as you have a Plan B if things go south, the risk is absolutely worth the reward.
[edit: now with hyperlinks!]