x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Shaking hands instead of handles

Dubai's technocrats abandon their computers for a real-world evening with like-minded people (but take their smartphones anyway).

Twitter and Facebook users socialise at Wednesday's GeekFest evening in Dubai.
Twitter and Facebook users socialise at Wednesday's GeekFest evening in Dubai.

DUBAI // For a few hours on Wednesday night, the stream of updates, tweets and blog posts went still. Dubai's technological elite were away 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, GeekFest was for many the first time they had actually met the people they had spent months "speaking" to. Introductions began: "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 restricts users to updates no longer 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 marginal when compared with the overall numbers communicating online, and the site is still limited to a dedicated community of geeks. At GeekFest, which was held at The Shelter, a coffee shop in Al Quoz, chit chat was slow and small talk awkward. 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," she added, spelling out the dog's Twitter "handle". All the Twitterati had the latest BlackBerries, iPhones or keyboard-enabled smartphones. Some took a moment to pull out those gadgets and tweet during the meeting. Two geeks held a quick phone-typing conversation. Several took pictures of GeekFest and within moments posted them on Twitter's picture sites, TwitPic and Yfrog.

It was like putting two mirrors side by side to reflect an infinite pool of geekery. 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" had been held. A month later, more than 100 twitterers had met in Dubai during "Twestival".

GeekFest sought to include not just the twitterati, he said, but also local bloggers and avid Facebook users. "I just liked the idea of a get-together, not only for bloggers but also technologically minded people." Dubai's online elite had 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. Four years ago, all of the bloggers were anonymous."

Now, more bloggers are using their own names. Dozens of people at GeekFest were not stereotypically bespectacled. Most were young professionals who, after a few 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 twitterer 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."

jgerson@thenational.ae