Charles Purcell pokes a stranger to find out if social networking skills succeed on the street.
Facebook, Twitter, Flickr such social networking sites have become an integral part of how people interact with each other in the modern era. We share some of our most intimate secrets and moments with sometimes virtual strangers. And yet, has anyone wondered what would happen if we did some of the things on these sites in real life with real people? I hit the streets of Sydney to see what would happen if I brought Facebook, Twitter and Flickr into the real world.
One way of assessing whether you want to be someone's friend on Facebook is to "poke" them. I walk up to a tourist at the money exchange at Darling Harbour and poke her on the shoulder.
"I have now poked you in the manner of Facebook," I say. "You have one week to look at my profile and decide if you want to be my friend.""Oh ... OK," she says, clearly horrified. The tension is unbearable. I crack first and tell her I poked her for a story. "So you're doing this to all the tourists?" she laughs. "I think people are going to be very surprised by what you're doing."
I wish her well and move on to my next potential friend, a pompous-looking man near the Stock Exchange.
"I have now poked you in the manner of Facebook," I say. "You have one week to decide if you want to be my friend." He looks at me with disgust. "I'm not interested," he says, then moves away rapidly. I am filled with shame and embarrassment.
Another function of Facebook is to send your friends quizzes about various topics. I grab my trusty Essential Q Quiz Book and take a train ride to Town Hall. I spot a groovy-looking guy by an empty seat and sit next to him. His eyes go wide with alarm.
"Question: Who played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's biopic of the Doors?" I ask. He is too stunned to reply, so I answer: "Val Kilmer." I leap straight into the next question. "In which film did Courtney Love play a porn baron's wife?" He is still in shock by my forwardness, so I answer: "The People Vs. Larry Flynt."
"We've just played a Facebook-style quiz," I say. "Perhaps you can be my friend now." He forces a smile. "Err, that's OK," he says, then gets up as the train pulls into the station. Is it really his stop? Who knows?
Another thing people do on Facebook is play Scrabble. I buy a copy of Travel Scrabble and approach the crowd waiting for the bus to Ryde. "Want to play Scrabble?" I ask various people, holding the tiny board before me. "Scrabble?" They shun me as if I have the plague. However, I spot a middle-aged woman with grocery bags sitting on a bench. "Let's play Scrabble," I urge. "Come on. It will only take a few minutes. Just a quick game." My badgering pays off. We play a socially awkward game of Scrabble, made even more difficult by the tiny number of tiles, the small board and our poor choice of words (bag, bad, baddy). She says goodbye as her bus arrives, seemingly an eternity later. So far, no one has offered to be my friend or even seemed interested. This real-life networking isn't working.
As one final Facebook-related gesture, I surprise hug one of my Facebook friends in real life. "You probably looked more uncomfortable than I did," he laughs. The tech editor described the status-updating feature of Twitter as like "standing in George Street and shouting out what you had for lunch". So I stand in Pitt Street Mall during lunch hour.
"I'm going to have Hungry Jack's for lunch today smiley face," I bellow. A few people look on in contempt. The lunchtime crowd walks around me as if there is an invisible bubble of shame around me. I wait an awful 30 seconds, then scream: "I polished my corns last night." (I have no corns.)
People continue to stare at the Twitter-based freak show I have become but none come near or talk to me. "I'm looking forward to Terminator 4," I cry. Despite my sharing of information, I have clearly become a social outcast. "Am I the only one who thinks the Beatles are overrated? Lol," I shout. But I'm not really laughing out loud more like crying on the inside. It's safe to say Twitter updates are the social kiss of death in the real world.
The other thing you can do on Twitter is to "follow" people's updates, usually in the hope they will "follow" yours back.
The next day I approach a group of students at the Pitt Street Mall. "Hi," I say. "I'd like to follow you." A medley of emotions plays over their faces shock, fear, discomfort. "What?" one finally croaks. "I'd like to follow you. That way, maybe you'd follow me," I say. There is another appalling pause. "Imagine it's Twitter," I hint. There is some recognition at the mention of Twitter but also fear. "No," one finally says. They form a protective huddle that blocks me out. I have been shunned. Twitter, you lied to me. They don't want to be my friends. No one does.
As suggested by my editor, I follow a stranger to see whether he would suddenly turn around and declare he now wants to follow me, Twitter style. After 10 minutes it doesn't seem like he is about to. He also seems to realise someone is following him so I abandon the pursuit.
Flickr allows you to share photos with friends and family.
I take my video iPod, loaded with photos from my wedding, and confront a woman having a cigarette in Pitt Street Mall. She isn't interested in my photos and appears irritated that I am interrupting her break.
However, I later come across a kindly older couple who are delighted to look at them.
"You make a lovely couple," they agree as I flick through the images on the iPod. They are genuinely interested when I tell them about the event and how it was held at Banjo Paterson's Cottage Restaurant in Gladesville, where the famed poet once lived. Finally, I have met some kindred spirits.
Navigating the network
Can't make head or tail of poking and virtual gift-giving? Here's a social networking cheat-sheet to bring you up to speed.
Poke Facebook's poke feature allows the pokee to temporarily see your basic profile information for a period of time. Poking someone can be considered fun, flirty and an unspoken invite for them to become your friend. Of course, if the pokee is a complete stranger with no connection to you whatsoever (as I was when I poked people in real life), it can seem creepy and can bring to mind Sting's stalker anthem Don't Stand So Close To Me.
Virtual gifts You can give people virtual gifts on Facebook ranging from alcoholic drinks, a roundhouse kick from Chuck Norris, erotic toys and hugs.
I consider it too weird and dangerous to give someone a real-life flaming purple hooter shooter on George Street. (But some people would simply love the privilege of receiving a roundhouse kick from Chuck Norris.)
Quizzes These range from naming '80s rock bands to which Sex And The City character you most resemble. However, some people consider quizzes to be annoying, particularly if they're delivered in real life to strangers on trains.
Games You can also play games on Facebook, ranging from the strategy shooter Mafia Wars to blackjack and the ever-popular Scrabble. Playing online means you can't convince someone that "blargh" is actually a generation Y word for "apathy".
Updates Perfect for our attention-deficit generation, Twitter lets you send rapid updates of whatever you are doing in 140 characters or fewer.
Usually the answer to "what are you doing?" is something as mundane as polishing one's corns, as I once screamed in Martin Place.
To quote Flickr: "Flickr is almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world."
Clearly, it is also one of the world's most modest.