HighEdWeb 12 was a rousing success. Despite all of my years blogging (and specifically the last few) as a higher ed blogger, I'd never been before. It was outstanding to put some faces to names, see other real life connections and to spend a few days tweeting about slow internet and a lack of gluten-free meals. all sort of brilliant things from some of the best and brightest in the business. I started working on a presentation proposal for next year before this year's conference was over, too.
One of the things I decided before going, was making sure I didn't push the line too much. I have a core group of folks I've interacted with largely via twitter over the years, so I wasn't worried about not having anyone to interact with. And luckily, an old coworker was there from real life giving me a bit of a buffer between the digital and "real" me if you will.
But when I went to Penn State's web conference back in June, I sort of walked away feeling strange. It's so odd to insert yourself into a community and to know what space you inhabit. It can be an odd feeling thinking that you've "connected" with all of these people via digital mediums and to give yourself the (false) impression that you really know them. You see other people talking and can believe that your relationships are the same without understanding the depth involved in them.
People might start out as BFFs on Twitter, but eventually they start emailing. Or calling. Or meeting in real life when they get opportunities. In short, they're real friends who have a professional connection. It's not a weird thing to understand, except in a small niche community where so much of the conversation plays out in public; it can be easy to think you're closer to folks than you really are.
And once you realize you're not, it can be a bit of a rude awakening if you're not prepared for it. In reality, it's like meeting any stranger for the first time. And I'm always sort of mystified by people who have this desire to hug the President or kiss some celebrity when they see them. I mean BOUNDARIES people? And I'm not likening anyone in the hewebsphere to a celebrity. But the relationships can often feel that way when you've got people you just know better than others.
Anyway, I made the decision heading to Milwaukee that I'd talk to people I knew. Or folks who'd approached me. But I wasn't going to go out of my way to randomly introduce myself to people out of context under the guise of "hey, we met on twitter." Because well, for starters, it feels weird. Even if all I was saying was "just trying to put a face with a name." I wanted to be mindful of boundaries. Not just other people's but my own.
The result? People reached out in spades. I ran across so many faces I'd seen in 75x75 over the years via Twitter, reconnected with old friends and met new ones in real life. It was excellent and yet, I remember joking with my ex-worker and saying "the trick to this all is understanding when the conversation is over and being comfortable with saying bye." I appreciated the folks who showed up at my poster presentation consistently saying they appreciated the chance to meet in real life. Best of all, I wasn't the one having to do all of the reaching out, it was mutual.
So much of it is about decorum. And thinking that if every person you were following on Twitter came up and said hello at an event, you'd probably be overwhelmed to the point of mania. But it's stuff I don't always think we're mindful of as people when we're ingratiating ourselves to folks who we feel a particular connection with virtually.
I can't say enough about this community. I was telling someone I met years ago, how grateful I was for the people who were the first ones to retweet a lot of my posts, leave comments and just generally be supportive of me. When you're in the hinterland and don't have a huge network, that I often wondered whether I was making sense at times or just going off and ranting as I do.
Then I left for a larger place and realized "hey, maybe I'm making sense more than I realized." That was fine. It was the validation, supportive and wonderful debates that I've had in the community over the years that really made me want to grow. It reminded me of college in a way.
I went to college in my 20s because I was in the Air Force after high school. Because I always knew I wanted to go, I'd sort of hyped up going to college. Once I was finally there, I mostly had this feeling of never wanting to embarrass myself in class. I didn't want to be exposed as some kind of fraud, because the respect of my peers just meant a lot. Not because I necessarily needed to be liked, I just wanted to be respected for being smart, thoughtful and maybe marginally intelligent and handsome.
I think the best way to really reach out as a higher ed denizen is to contribute. Not everyone has to write a blog. You can volunteer. Share your victories in the hopes that someone else might learn from it. Present at a conference. While it's fun to imagine that you're part of one big happy family of people, the truth is, relationships happen organically and they come from forging relationships with people we respect through their work and uncommon awesomeness.
You have a story and it's one worth sharing if you dig deep enough.