How San Francisco is reclaiming the word ‘social’.

A growing trend in SF - asking patrons to Go off Grid.

A growing trend in SF – asking patrons to Go off Grid.

I went to San Francisco agog to see a Google Glass or two in the field. Instead, I found an even more absorbing trend – Americans Going Off Grid.

One of the most surprising things I saw on a recent trip to California wasn’t the use of technology, it was the lack of it. People in bars just weren’t on their phones as much as I’m used to seeing here in Australia – they were totally present in the moment.

Walk into any bar in Sydney and a large percentage will be glued to their screens, whether alone or not.

In San Francisco, people seemed almost sheepish about whipping their cellphones out. Perhaps in a nation known for working so hard, mobiles represent work more than play and a dreaded email from the boss could be just a glance away.

The switch-off wasn’t always just through personal choice; sometimes it was enforced, with some bars proudly displaying a ‘no cellphones’ sign by the front door. Promoter Bus Station John has messages at his events written in a cheerful tone of voice, like “No cell phonz thanks!”  and one bar I visited gleefully promised ‘you’ll be ejected if we you see you using your phone’.

It’s unclear whether such bans are wholly altruistic (“We’d prefer patrons talk to each other”) or self-motivated (“Don’t Shazam my quirky playlist”). Either way, America Going off Grid made for some great nights out. When we’re not engaging with faraway strangers on our phones, it seems the ones close to us are more likely to engage. Who knew?

Do strangers still exist? Removing social barriers.

Northern Californians are some of the friendliest people I’ve met. I doubt they’ve ever been scared to talk to strangers. But has being online actually helped redefine the term ‘stranger’?

It’s certainly fair to say we’ve got more shared experiences than ever. Whether headline news, must-see TV, Reddit meme cycles, or cookie-cutter Instagrams telling us exactly which bakery makes the best cupcakes in town, we’re cross-culturally aligned like never before.

And it’s not just our experiences that are harmonising, it’s our attitudes. We know the latest socially expected responses to certain questions and the world leaders it’s ok to admire, or deride. We also know the issues we’d be wise to bite our tongues on when our own opinion is against the norm. It’s ok, social media will tell us when the barometer shifts.

Social harmonisation is affecting our language too. Never has vocabulary shifted so quickly, Yesterday’s hashtag, is today’s dictionary entry and tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper.  Amazeballs. YOLO. FTW. Ehmahgerd. Gold! I can’t even… strange and alien becomes familiar and understood in no time. It’s totes cray cray.

All of which means, when you meet a stranger, you probably have a lot more in common with them then you might have done twenty years ago. That goes double in a city as small as Sydney, when you can check out someone you’ve just met online and discover you’ve already got heaps of mutual friends.

Look me in the eye. Removing tech barriers.

The word ‘social’ has become two-tier, with the real world and the online fighting for our attention. Perversely, engaging in the latter in public is largely seen as antisocial, something products like Google Glass will address. As technology becomes less about objects and more about passive, intuitive integration with ourselves, it jolts us back into the moment (or at least, hides the fact we’re distracted). For those who can’t bear to be without their phones, or who feel guilty about using them in real-world social situations, it will bring the best of both worlds, enabling people to be more present, whatever they’re doing. Until wearable tech gets banned from bars too that is.

Oh San Francisco, whatever you’ve got up your sleeve, this copywriter rather enjoyed your places where the only ‘likes’, were like, vocal and the LOLs were just that. I hope you do your best to keep it that way.