For as long as I can remember some people have suggested that the use of computers to communicate with others is anti-social and leads to the decline of in-person socialisation, like having a pint in the pub with friends. But I can recall using CompuServe 20 years ago and participating regularly in the rock music forum, which led to pub meetings and gigs with friends I would never have met had we not logged in to the service and talked together about the music we loved.
These same accusations are now heightened by the advent of social networking. The argument runs that some people find their virtual friends more interesting than their real ones. I don't know about you, but I still have real people that I like to meet in person, regardless of my online activity. All this social media just enhances what is possible - I even arranged my own wedding on Facebook and it meant the guests had all chatted online before ever meeting in person.
I live in São Paulo now, but three years ago when I lived in Ealing, in west London, I tried an experiment. I used Twitter to send out a message suggesting a time and place for local Twitter users to meet - a 'tweetup'. I had suggested the Rose & Crown pub one evening early in 2009 and about a dozen people showed up.
What was interesting was that nobody knew each other, only one person from that group was working in the IT industry, and we all found it remarkably easy to continue online conversations in the real-life setting of a neighbourhood pub. After all, we all had an interest in Twitter and we were all neighbours, so despite the diversity of the group, it worked.
Since that time the 'Ealing Tweetup' has grown much larger. Now there is usually a sponsor ensuring some drinks to lubricate the crowd, and live music too, but at its heart it is still a community gathering of Twitter users. Just it can be more like 200 rather than a dozen, making it one of the largest social media events in London.
And it is still not overrun with technology people, which is important. I attend many events connected to social media and they are usually swarming with either entrepreneurs trying to find a quick way to get rich, PR professionals looking for new clients, or techies who genuinely find API discussions interesting.
Since I left the UK, Hayden Sutherland has been keeping the Ealing Tweetup alive. It has grown into a semi-regular event featuring real people who just happen to use social media; journalists (both Sky and the BBC are close), industry analysts, actors, photographers, supermarket managers, teachers, and politicians. If you are interested in meeting some of those Twitter icons in person then why not come along? And to make it even better, I'll be in person at Tweetup 14, so it will be as if I never left London!
Follow Mark Hillary on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markhillary