I had a most interesting dinner party experience over the weekend. I was the recipient of almost vitriol after answering the simple question, "So what do you do?" from the woman sitting across from me.
Given that this was my first weekend off in several weeks and the last thing I wanted to do was bore someone else with talk of work, I kept my answer brief.
"I work in social media," I replied.
I had expected a polite comment or maybe two, depending on how interested she was in talking to me. What I hadn't expected was the anger that came from my response.
At first I had to address the age-old myth that 'twittering', a familiar term amongst non-tweeters, wasn't solely about sharing tedious updates such as her example, 'picking her nose'.
I explained that a lot of employers today assume candidates applying for a job have a digital footprint whilst using the value of LinkedIn and one's Klout score as examples.
She replied by saying, "So it's like knowing Powerpoint."
"Powerpoint?" I replied.
"Yes, Powerpoint." She enunciated very clearly. "Back in my day, knowing Powerpoint could get you a job. Not anymore because everyone knows how to use it."
I was confused so I repeated myself as I listened to her follow suit. We were going around in circles. Knowing how to use Powerpoint was being compared to digital sharing and social networking. Was I missing something?
So I tried another tactic. I tried to explain the concept of social networking by using an example of closed-school offline networking as an example. When working at a national newspaper years ago, I remember someone telling me that there was a time that the best way to get a job at this organisation was to visit the pub across the road and get talking to people. It was about being in the right place at the right time and as in a lot of industries, knowing the right people.
Today, social networking is a free for all. The digital landscape doesn't limit itself by defining boundaries. If you have a voice and something interesting to say then people will want to listen to you and your audience will develop.
"So if everyone's doing it, what's the point? It's not worth anything," she continued.
She didn't accept 'the best rise to the top' or 'there are plenty of doctors around too, it doesn't mean their skills are devalued'. Admittedly, the latter point was very tenuous and sounded quite desperate. I just didn't know what else to say given that by this time, I had to watch her wagging her finger at me as she made impressions of me, as if I were a giddy schoolgirl whose manner was vague. I was trying to keep my cool especially when I heard her turn to the person on her right and tell him, "They're not real people you know. All these people on social media, they're not real people."
I later found out that she was a housewife, living in a Hampshire village, and I wondered where her reaction to social media was coming from. Was she reliving the 1950s hysteria of the body snatchers coming to get us? Did she think social media was a conspiracy to dehumanise society?
Her verbal attack continued for a short while longer and admittedly became tedious. Later I found out that she had gulped three large glasses of white wine whilst everyone else sipped their glasses of champagne before dinner. Meanwhile, I knew I was fighting a losing battle, trying to explain the difference between the one-sided nature of advertising compared to the two-way interaction between brands and customers with social media.
"It's not so bad because nowadays the consumer influences brands more so than ever. Social media has given customers a voice and brands have to listen to them," I continued.
But it wasn't until I told her that I still wrote letters by hand and that I remember how letters were replaced by emails and that now, my friends and I rarely email each other, that she seemed to have calmed down. I seemed to have demonstrated that on some level I was still human, that I wasn't all machine.
And the funny thing about the whole scenario was that when I managed to extract myself from the discussion, her husband on my right asked me what I did for a living soon after. I took a deep breath and said "social media". I braced myself as I listened to him tell me about a friend of his whose start-up company, which monitors brand mentions and provides sentimental analysis, was doing well. At this point we embarked on a discussion about the importance of monitoring and I wondered if he'd ever told his wife about his friend. I'm not so sure I would.