DUBAI // The man's gaze dances around a crowded room before he finds what he's been looking for: a familiar name tag. "So you are confused_demon85!" he says. "Nice to finally put a face on the Twitter handle."
The exchange illustrates the birth - and growth - of a new community in the UAE: social-media geeks who are coming out from behind their computer screens to meet up in person and develop flesh-and-blood friendships. They are being helped by events with names such as Geekfest and TwitBookClub designed to do just that. "People are deepening online relationships by physically meeting, groups are forming, friendships being made and even relationships forged," said Alexander McNabb, a blogger and leading member of the Dubai Twitter community.
Mr McNabb, along with Saadia Zahid, the curator of The Shelter, a quirky art venue in Dubai, created Geekfest last July. The gathering now features digital art, online gaming and 15-minute talks delivered by community members passionate about their interests. It also offers workshops, such as on touching up images with Photoshop or optimising Google searches. "It's pretty geeky," Mr McNabb said. But rather than "a bunch of fumbling social inadequates sitting in corners and texting each other", he found the people who attend such events to be interesting and possessed of a strong sense of community.
Chances are that the fellow linking to live World Cup feeds will be eager to hold an animated conversation about the competition's refereeing catastrophes, for instance. Or that the one posting photos of his new iPad will be able to hold court about Apple's rivalry with Microsoft. "Twitter paves the way for people to meet offline by providing enough information about each person," said another Dubai Twitter user, Eman Hussein. "This information acts like a repository to guarantee an interesting first conversation that is relevant and goes on for a decent time."
When a conversation on Twitter turned to the Dubai neighbourhood of Satwa and its "authenticity", the idea of a restaurant crawl was floated. Joined by 11 fellow 'Tweeps', the group dropped by an Indian restaurant and two pubs in the area before calling it a night. "In a town like Dubai, formerly known as one of the loneliest places in the world to be single, people are meeting like-minded people, talking in new ways and opening up dialogue that otherwise would never have happened," Ms Hussein said.
A glance through the Dubai version of Twtvite, a website that co-ordinates events by and for the Twitter community, shows plans for a movie outing, a business-coaching session and a World Cup and barbecue night. Less spontaneous are gatherings such as TwtBookClub, a monthly event on the third Saturday of every month at The Shelter. The group gets special discounts at Jashanmal's and can enroll in a book club scheme at Magrudy's, two of the UAE's largest book chains.
Geekfest also draws corporate giants such as Microsoft, Lenovo and Samsung to showcase their wares, with the imperative that they "not hassle the geeks". Mr McNabb cites the example of a discussion on Twitter about mussels that was under way before the InterContinental replied with details of an all-the-mussels-you-can-eat offer, and between 30 and 40 Tweeps showed up. But the fun, games and special offers take second place to new friendships. And some people closely resemble their online personas, Mr McNabb said, while other's don't at all.
"Some are utterly different. Some of the most aggressive, outspoken and demanding online people are quiet, inoffensive and respectful offline," he said. "Some, of course, are sociopaths both ways." firstname.lastname@example.org