Talking to strangers…

A recurring theme today seems to be “talking to strangers”. It first came up during a discussion I had this morning with some colleagues, discussing the “North South divide” – and a comment along the lines of “if you talk to a stranger in London, people think you are weird. If you do it in Newcastle, it’s entirely normal”.

Actually, I am not sure it is a North South thing – where I grew up (in Dorset) it was fairly normal to speak to strangers – though perhaps not as enthusiastically as in the North! The point about London definitely holds true though.

The second time it came up was at tonights DigitalSurrey, where Euan Semple was talking about social networks and social businesses. One of the points I took home was that Twitter is all about talking with strangers. Someone once summed up the digital networks as “Facebook is people you once knew, Twitter is the people you wish you knew”. Euan made a huge number of inciteful points (which I will be entirely unable to do justice to here!), but one that struck home the most was about knowing friends he had only ever met online better than people he knew in real life. It really set me thinking. I follow around 500 people on Twitter, and tend to chat with them mostly on my way too and from work on the train in the morning. At the same time, on the same train, there are probably another 300 or so people. Some of them I recognise, I see them every day – as I take my bike on the train I often share the same carriage with them – and yet I have rarely spoken to any of them.

The two questions this leads me to are… Is there any NorthSouth divide (or similar) in the way people use social media (such as twitter) to converse with strangers? Do the (stereotypically) chatty northerners not use social media because they get human (stranger) interaction through real people in the real world? OR, are northerners “better” (whatever that means) at social media interactions precisely because they are more practiced at talking to strangers? What are the psychological reasons for “London types” being more chatty with strangers when there is a screen in the way? Does the fact that Twitter is text only make a difference (consider the weird wide web of ChatRoulette for instance!)? Would LondonTypes be happier if they “telecommuted” using a robot teleprescence device (like Sheldon in Big Bang Theory!)?

I have long harboured a secret desire to create a podcast around commuter stories – interviewing people on the train for 30 seconds or a minute on a particular question. I am not sure why – whether it is a desire to make a connection with fellow travellers, or a need for something to break the monotony of train travel. At 10pm, on a Thursday evening on an empty train it seems like a great idea…but let’s see what I think of it in the cold light of tomorrow morning!

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