(Note: this is a little long, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while…)
At many meetings or conferences, participants wear name tags. At a minimum the tag contains a self-written first name (perhaps preceded by “Hello. My name is…”). Or meetings with registered users may have name tags with pre-printed names, organizational affiliations, location or other standardized information. In all of these cases, name tags serve the same basic function: to display identifying information (or metadata) about the wearer for the benefit of others. So, as attendees come within visual range, they can discover something about one another and perhaps start a conversation or make a connection.
One of the purposes (sometimes the main purpose) of most such gatherings is to “network”, or to help attendees make meaningful connections among themselves. So, toward this end, name tags tend to be useful – because they provide important information, or networking hooks, upon which people can relate and connect. A name tag’s networking hooks are part of the first impression conveyed by the wearer, saying, in effect, “Here is something about me that maybe you will find interesting”.
But one characteristic about name tags is that they tend to contain objective information – factual information about the wearer that is readily perceived by others. Put another way, the information on someone’s name tag could be (and often actually is) provided by a third party involved in organizing the meeting.
A name tag’s objective networking hooks – like name, affiliation and hometown – may be vitally useful in opening a point of contact, when, say, you’re standing in the lunch buffet line. (“Oh, I see you’re from San Diego…”) Some of these initial contacts result in a pleasant lunchtime chat; others may result in deeper, more meaningful connections, perhaps developing into ongoing relationships. Such meaningful connections don’t happen simply by reading a name tag. They develop (if at all) in the course of subsequent conversations, after some give and take, as a result of sharing subjective information. (“I know so-and-so. Do you?” “Years ago, I used to work at _________ .” “I really hope that _____ .” “I hate when _____.”) In other words, within a group of people who don’t know one another well, simple objective networking hooks can provide an important entre to sharing the subjective information from which meaningful relationships might arise.
So why not share some subjective information up front as part of conveying a first impression? Why not present networking hooks that are uniquely and personally meaningful — that one specifically hopes might attract a connection that would feel useful or validating or passionate? Of course, typical, objective name tag information may be intensely meaningful, like when it indicates an organizational affiliation with which the wearer passionately identifies. But if one purpose of a gathering is to provide a rich array of opportunities for meaningful connections, then the handful of objective networking hooks on a typical name tag may only scratch the surface of the potential personal and professional reasons for which one might want to connect.
Self-disclosure – the voluntary sharing of subjective information – is the fuel of social networking sites. Sharing information about who your “friends” are, your career ambitions or your favorite movies constitutes a diverse array of subjectively created metadata. These personally meaningful networking hooks are both the input and the output, the requirement and the benefit, of sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. Without subjective networking hooks, these sites simply become directories.
Face to face meetings are also (and of course always have been) social networking platforms – albeit within a physical, rather than electronic, medium. But, as we all know, compared to the vast capacity of the electronic medium of social networking sites, physical space has very real limits. Rather than having an unlimited number of media-rich electronic pages to work with, physical space requires more limited and mundane tools, such as a physically worn label or tag. Further, in a face-to-face meeting, people tend to only have a few moments to read and comprehend such information.
But even within the limited context of a physical name tag, at least some additional, subjective networking hooks can be displayed. These self-created networking hooks might be thought of as tag tags – a term which conveys both senses of the word tag: as a physical label (like a name tag) and as user-created metadata (as with Flickr or del.icio.us). Tag tags can be worn by attendees at an event to express subjective networking hooks. Simply write your networking hook(s) on a name tag (or separate label) and go about attending the meeting. This may seems like a strange practice at first, but how different is it, really, from wearing objective metadata on a name tag in the first place? The main difference, in fact, is that self-written tag tags are more likely than typical name tags to express networking hooks that are more personal, unique and immediately relevant. One experiment with tag tags (though not by that name) was tried at the 2006 IA [Information Architecture] Summit in Vancouver, where the tag tags were photographed.
But, because of the technical and social capacity limits of wearing labels, it may be more effective if the subjective metadata were more simple, focused and direct. So, meeting organizers might suggest guidelines for tag tags. These may be highly relevant to the subject of the meeting (“Name the last projects you worked on”). Or they may be totally irrelevant to the meeting (“Who’s your favorite Disney character?”). Or they may be tangentially related (“What industry professionals most inspire you?”). Regardless of the format (or lack thereof), tag tags can enable attendees to:
- express aspects about themselves not captured by typical name tag metadata
- express networking hooks that are immediately relevant (and can even be added or modified during the course of the meeting)
- introduce or reinforce new vocabulary
- nurture more diverse types of personal connections
- coincide with both the process and the content of how they present themselves in electronic social media
- validate attendees for their uniquely felt identities, purposes or roles
We’ll be experimenting with tag tags at the first Net Tuesday Philly meeting. And I’d be very interested in learning about other applications or variations.