With attendees frantically updating their Facebook accounts on their Blackberrys between sessions, tweeting about your keynoter while she’s still on stage and tapping away on netbooks during breaks, one can’t help but wonder what happened to actually being social with the people who are in the same room. Is all this social networking making us less social face-to-face?

Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation, LLC, Reston, Va., says that the answer lies in thinking differently about what we mean by “social.” “It used to be that you were being social when you were interacting with the people who were sharing the same physical space,” but now the definition of “social” has to extend to the distributed community of people you follow and who follow you on Twitter, your Facebook friends, and your LinkedIn links.

“I don’t think of it as being less social; I think of it as being social in a different way,” he says. This Q&A is an adaptation of a podcast we recorded recently with De Cagna:

MeetingsNet: If “social” is being redefined to include both face-to-face encounters and virtual relationships nurtured via Twitter and Facebook during conference downtimes, doesn’t that take away from what has traditionally been one of a live meetings’ biggest strong suits: those hallway conversations?

De Cagna: I don’t think so. It’s not 1970, 1980, or 1990 where people coming to an event could come and unplug. We don’t live in that world anymore. Instead of fighting that trend and saying people shouldn’t be connected, we should think in terms of how we integrate that connectedness into that experience and extract the value from the relationships they have, whether they’re face-to-face at a meeting or virtual.

We need to create double-sided experiences that, like double-sided tape, are sticky on both sides—for physical-space attendees and virtual attendees. Frankly, what devalues events are the aspects that aren’t about being social. When we organize things that are about the needs exclusively of one segment of the audience, or create scenarios where people can’t interact, or put more time and energy into creating a show than creating a rich social experience, that’s more devaluing [than off-site interactions].

MeetingsNet: How do you design an event to be sticky on both sides?

De Cagna: There are simple things organizers can do, such as use social tools to share their messages, have event blogs, share video and audio, and have live tweeters to share information. ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership’s annual meeting in Toronto last summer did a great job of organizing an annual meeting hub that included blogs and tweets and podcasts so everyone who was there could access it easily, as well as those who were not there.

We also need to get speakers involved not just in submitting content in advance, offering a handout, and writing a blog post, but also engaging them with how they can use Twitter as part of their sessions. Would they take questions from a Twitter audience, create chat-oriented conversations that involve both a virtual audience and an audience in the room? It’s about creating an environment where there’s a growing number of content creators and a community of people we might formerly have known as an audience who want to share the stories of their engagement with others.

MeetingsNet: I still come back to how all the virtual engagement could seem to devalue the live-meeting experience. If attendees are spending so much time tweeting with off-site people, does that mean their needs somehow not being met in real life?

De Cagna: Event organizers need to ask themselves why people are using social tools while attending in physical space: Is what they’re learning in virtual space more engaging to them than what’s going on in the room? Are they finding more value in taking one statement from a speaker and putting it out on Twitter and having a rich conversation about that one statement than they are in hearing what the speaker says after that one particular quote? Events organizers should look at not just the communications and marketing capabilities of social technologies, but also the educational implications for peer-to-peer, informal learning [using social technologies].

There’s a lot of opportunity there for organizers to really rethink how they support learning. It’s a big job to tackle, and there’s no recipe to say here are the 10 things you need to do.

The challenge is to create an experience that is worthy of in-person attendance, but also is rich enough to be inclusive of those who cannot attend, so there are ways attendees can connect to their virtual network even while they’re building relationships [face to face]. We have to review, refine, and amplify a view of what it means to be social from one that has been narrowly focused on what goes on in the room to one that is more inclusive of a universe of stakeholders, some of whom are in the room and some of whom are in other places.