Monday, 11 January 2010

What should I do?

The end of a decade is usually a time for reflection. Working in the mobile industry, I’m surrounded by phones and read lots of blog postings about how mobile phones have changed, and how the iPhone brought to the public consciousness the idea of adding applications to a phone to add functionality to it. But the mobile phone itself has changed other things in our lives, which have changed the way we interact with people in more subtle ways.

For instance, almost all of the time, you see the number of the person calling you when you get a call these days. And pretty often, they’ll be in your contacts, so you’ll actually get to see who it is. I’ve become so used to the idea that you know who’s calling you before you pick up the phone, I can hardly remember the sensation of picking up the phone and saying “hello?” without knowing who is on the other end.

I have a variety of ways of saying “hello” depending on who’s calling me. There’s a “hello” for people I speak to regularly, a “hello?” for people who’ve withheld their number and a “hello!” for people I’ve not heard from in a while. It wasn’t too many years ago that “hello?” would’ve been the only one available to me.

Of course, the advent of mobiles has also given us the ability to check which of our friends are currently underground – a skill we had not even dreamed could be useful until we realised that it tells us whether someone we’re standing out in the cold waiting for is still on the tube, or is wandering lost around the vicinity.

The use of mobiles in public places has also given us the opportunity to hear the voices of strangers in a way we never used to. People used to sit silently on trains and buses, staring into space or down into a newspaper. The fact that they are gossiping away to friends may be annoying, but it does allow you hear whether they are well spoken or not, whether they have an accent and often which country they are from. Celebrities have also become more recognisable; many of the times I’ve seen a famous person around London it’s been the voice which has alerted me rather than seeing them walk past.

The advent of the internet into our lives has also brought with it the idea that having conversations with strangers is normal. We seek advice and chat from people who we’ve never seen except for a tiny picture on their Twitter page or a comedy photo of them wearing a hat which they’ve chosen for their Facebook photo. The moments of being out and about and seeing someone who you think you recognise from their Twitter photo were unknown only a few years ago, and now it happens to me a couple of times a year.

Only the other evening, I was at a BBC radio recording and saw someone who looked a bit familiar. I realised that he looked like the picture on Twitter on someone I have followed for a few months and exchanged a few messages back and forth with. What’s the etiquette in that situation? Do you go up to them and say “hello, I think I may follow you on Twitter”. Of course, the fact that following on Twitter is not always mutual means that they may not be following you, and so have no idea who you are. To go up to them and say this would be to confirm status as a “stalker type” I think.

So what do you do? Do you send them a Twitter message to say “hello, I think I saw you the other night?” – it’s still a bit weird, but at least you’re enquiring from a safe distance rather than invading their real life in a way they may not appreciate.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve done nothing. I didn’t say “hello?” to him at the recording, nor have I sent him a Twitter message to see whether it was him I saw the other night. Maybe I should – what d’you think?

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