For a few hours on Wednesday night, the constant stream of updates, tweets and blog posts went still. Dubai's technological elite were lured from their computers. Lattes in hand, they were instead sitting around a circular table at GeekFest Dubai, trying to think of something to say. An outing devoted to those whose social lives revolve around online networking, for many, GeekFest, was the first time many had actually met the people they had spent months "speaking" to online. Introductions begin: "What's your name?" Followed by: "What's your twitter handle?" And then," Oh, I think I'm following you!"
Twitter, a micro-blogging site that forces users to post updates shorter than 140 characters, was unblocked in the UAE in August of last year. Since then, the site has attracted about 5,000 users in the country, according to research compiled by SpotOn Public Relations, a local agency. While that represents rapid growth, the popularity of Twitter is still marginal when compared to how many people communicate online. Twitter is still limited to a dedicated community of geeks. Chit chat was slow and small talk awkward at GeekFest, which was held at the Shelter, a coffee shop in Al Quoz Dubai. Then one geek began to expound on the speed of the microprocessor inside the latest Samsung mobile handset. Another became enigmatic when discussing his latest blog post; the discovery of a company that turns human remains and dead pets into diamonds.
Others continued with conversations they had been conducting earlier in the day on Twitter. "My dog is probably tweeting right now," said Simone Sebastian, 25. "She actually has some pretty profound things to say. You should follow her. Her name is Anoucky. That's at, a, n, o, u, c, k, y." All of them had the latest BlackBerries, iPhones or keyboard-enabled smartphones. Some at the conference took a moment to pull out those phones and tweet during the 'Twitterati' meeting. Two held a quick phone typing conversation. Several took pictures of GeekFest and posted them on Twitter picture sites, TwitPic and Yfrog, in real time. Alexander McNabb, a group account director with SpotOn, was one of the organisers of the event.
These events are more than just a chance to get out of the house and away from the computer screen, Mr McNabb said. They're the beginnings of a community. In January, a small "Tweet up" was held. A month later, more than 100 twitterers met in Dubai during "Twestival." GeekFest also sought to include bloggers and avid Facebook users. "I just liked the idea of a get together, not only for bloggers but also technologically minded people," he said. Dubai's online elite have been increasingly meeting in real life and forming friendships based on true identities rather than pseudonyms, Mr McNabb said. "Over the past year I've started to meet people one on one. Among bloggers, there used to be a lot of paranoia. People here used to conceal their identities," he said.
"Four years ago, all of the bloggers were anonymous." In the recent past, blogging was thought to be a dangerous activity, a perception fortified by the caution about offending the culture displayed by the local media. However, anonymity attracts a vitriolic crowd and Mr McNabb said he soon became bored and began posting under his real name at fakeplasticsouks.blogspot.com. "And I didn't see the need for [anonymity] as long as I was respectful of the culture." Now, more bloggers are using their real names and Mr McNabb heralds events like GeekFest as a sign that online culture is becoming more open. The dozens of attendees at GeekFest were not stereotypically bespectacled. Most were young professionals who, after a few initial uncomfortable opening pleasantries, were quick to discuss their passions; technology, communication and internet culture. "I'm just here to meet people," said Bhavishya Kanjhan, a student and Twitter user who also operates a technology blog. "This is a good social event to find people who think like me. Sometimes, that's really hard to find." firstname.lastname@example.org