The Name of the Game

The invitation read, without a trace of irony: “Social Network Soirée: Discussion, Champagne, Experiment.” The setting: a sleek West Chelsea garage used by Eyebeam, a digital-arts group. The guests: 250 thirtysomething media professionals, 75 percent of whom sported Clark Kent spectacles, blazers rumpled just so, and hair putty. The topic of discussion: the nature of social power.

What distinguished last Tuesday’s get-together from New York’s many self-referential “events” was that those gathered were socializing in the name of science. MIT Ph.D. Rick Borovoy has invented a gadget called the Name (Drop) Tag, which he hopes can determine how long it takes for everyone at a party to know everyone else (why this matters at all was not addressed). About the size of a Palm pilot, it hangs around your neck and has a sensor that records contact with other Name (Drop) Tags, allowing minglers to keep track of how many people they meet and whose name gets dropped the most. Everyone wore one, and, with a little help from Moët & Chandon, they went to work, furiously meeting and greeting (except for Borovoy, who manned the door, making sure no one tried to swipe his gizmo).

One guest was Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, who had a fashionable new Afro and seemed to enjoy being a guinea pig. “I usually speak at marketing meetings, so it’s a good deal more fabulous to be here,” he said.

Standing alone in the midst of this ersatz schmoozing was Joseph McElroy, a portly artist and “technologist.” According to his tag, he’d already met over 100 people, which startled him because he recalled chatting with only three. But that may have been because there were many highly aggressive socializers bolting up to people to make a sensor connection, then moving on to fresh prey. “A lot of people are like that in real life,” McElroy said, as if what was taking place was something virtual. “They say they know everybody, but it’s always on a very shallow basis.”

But a Tyson Beckford look-alike whose Name (Drop) Tag identified him as Ro Dawg wasn’t nearly so casual toward these assaulting socializers. “That’s what you call flat-out tag rape!” he huffed. “I’m gonna report it right now!” This turned out to be a bluff, however, for at night’s end the most-dropped name of all was revealed to be: Ro Dawg.

The Name of the Game