Conversatin’ — from coffeehouse to Fediverse
Last updated 2/21/2023 at Noon
One day a couple of weeks ago, I was writing at Junction Roastery coffeehouse in Redmond. It’s an active, friendly place. On a previous visit I’d met a cool guy named Clifford who had great style, with a 1980s MC vibe. Later I found out he’s a former sheriff’s department commander who sits on the city council, a veritable Redmond demi-celeb. But at the coffeehouse, it was all casual. We just chitchatted.
Another time, a woman carrying a striking handbag — it had the Black Flag logo on it — sat next to me at the counter. We got to talking and found that we had things in common: singing in bands, doing theatre, concern for our aging parents, a love of vintage clothes and furniture. Our kids go to the same school.
Now we are friends. I think she and her Atomic Bazaar vintage shop are wonderful. Thank heavens I didn’t just whip out my phone and ignore the real people around me that day.
Last week, a familiar face appeared at Junction. It was one of our elected officials, Phil Chang. People sat and talked, got up, made space for newcomers. Whatever was on their minds, these voters brought it to Phil Chang on neutral, friendly ground — not whatever government building the Deschutes County Commissioners work in. Apparently he’s going to visit us in Sisters too.
That night I logged on to Mastodon, an alternative to corporate, algorithm-driven social media. Mastodon’s gotten popular since Elon Musk bought Twitter. Mastodon felt like the old-school Internet of the 1990s— a little clunky, a little random, rife with possibility.
Strangers, many of us new to the Mastodon platform and the sprawling technolibertarian Fediverse of which it is part, reached out to each other. Some imitated news pundits from the old Twitterverse, making bold statements about politics and current events, most eliciting little response.
Some chatted about their lives: favorite music, on-the-ground photos from Ukraine, deep geekery on programming languages, the weather in North Dakota.
Nature nerds posted photos of large trees (hashtag #thicktrunktuesdays). I was delighted to find an actual news and tech culture pundit, someone I sort of knew when we both wrote for Wired magazine.
I wasn’t sure how to respond, see if he remembered me. I clunked along, typing @, saying something like, “Hey, didn’t you play accordion for Lakeside Rebar with us in Jamie’s apartment?” He remembered.
But I’d gotten the instrument wrong. The accordion in my memory, playing alt-country in a Chelsea apartment before a gig upstate, was flat-out false. He’d actually played #harmonica. Note to self: Do not count on your memory. When possible, corroborate presumed facts with other people’s, also possibly incorrect, memories. He was nice about it, and helped me learn Mastodon.
There were other brief reunions. A bunch of us wrote quickie haikus based on a daily prompt. A conversation emerged between myself and a professor emeritus of economics based in the UK. I made encouraging posts to a depressed stranger, a kid far away having a rough time.
Fewer cats, fewer fights, fewer clever but annoying memes than I remember from a decade ago when I was active on social media. Mastodon reminded me of conversations I’ve had at local hangouts—Fika, Sisters Coffee, Angeline’s, Suttle Tea.
I thought back to my family’s first months in Sisters some seven years ago, meeting other parents by striking up conversations at the splash pad, Village Green’s old wooden playground, SPRD. Some became dear friends or cherished acquaintances.
Back on Mastodon, conflict invariably emerged. An antifa magick guy groused at me; his friends starred and boosted my gentle rebuttals. Elsewhere I was accused of being insufficiently woke. The blocker bestowed upon me the opportunity to explain myself.
Instead I decided to re-explore my culturally ingrained, possibly discriminatory thinking in private. I’ll be blocked by some while I do this soul work. That’s okay.
It feels good, living in a world where we can congregate and conversate, even disagree. As someone with recurring chronic illness, I know what it’s like to be stuck at home and need the lifeline of online community.
Better, though, is to take a chance on real people in the real world around me—including people I can’t just block if their views seem old-fashioned or genuinely upsetting. Assume we might have something in common, even if our every political or religious belief is not aligned. Be open to a short conversation when I don’t have time for an in-depth one.
Today I sit typing next to the roaring fire in Sisters Coffee. Outside, snow blows from the west, swirling down Hood Avenue. For every person engrossed in their phone or laptop, I see three or four chatting with each other. A few silently contemplate the room, listening to the buzz.
A young woman puts down her iPhone to say hi to a somewhat older gentleman who sits down nearby. He turns away from his laptop and they talk. He works in Internet infrastructure, building the bandwidth we depend upon. They enjoy 10 minutes or so of conversation, then return to their separate devices and separate lives.
I see acquaintances across the room and make do with a wave. My deadline looms. Perhaps tomorrow we can chat.