Human beings long for contact, for connectivity, to share their lives and themselves with the people they care about and in return be accepted into the lives of those same people. It’s a fundamental principle of existence itself. We seek connections. We seek company and reciprocated love. We thrive when we find it and we struggle when we don’t. We all need people in our lives, just as they need us in theirs.
But connections can be found in the most unfathomable of places: at work, at school, on the street, in a bar, when walking the dog. People come into our lives in the strangest of ways and make an impression so strong it lingers forever. It used to be that engaging with people, making connections, making friends, was an activity solely exclusive to face-to-face contact, but in these last few years, there has been a seismic shift in how we maintain that constant desire to engage with people. And that shift comes in the form of social networking.
Whether it’s through Facebook or Twitter, Tumblr or some other network less popular but still surviving, social networking has changed our social interactions. We no longer need to have a person physically in front of us to engage in conversation; all we need is a phone or a tablet, a laptop or even a games console, and an active internet connection. We can talk to anybody in the world either through text or via video, with the distance separating us having no impact on the speed in which our conversation will flow. We’re surrounded by these people every minute of every day and we need only a conduit through which to speak to them.
Even though the likes of Facebook and Twitter have been around for many years, it’s still quite astonishing to appreciate how they have revolutionised the way we experience things and how we share them with the people we love. Facebook lets you build a network of people you already know but want to know more about and who you feel comfortable knowing more about you, while Twitter lets you do the same but without the pre-requisite of knowing people beforehand. They’re the two biggest social networks on the internet by a country mile. They both operate in different ways yet fundamentally achieve the same goal: of changing the way we interact with people, whether we know them or not. We all become entangled within the same web and if we only follow the correct strings, we can always find each other.
Allowing social networks to change the way you engage with people depends on the way in which you use them, of course. Not everybody is entirely comfortable with letting people who exist on their screens into every corner of their life. Some may prefer to use Twitter as nothing but a news aggregator–a real-time, constantly updating provider of breaking news stories from anywhere in the world, any time. Others may like to use Facebook only to communicate with those they know in person and can verify isn’t a deranged lunatic who will track them down and set their house on fire if they dare to dislike something close to their heart. And that is fine. Social networks, by their nature, encourage a wide range of people and by extension a wide range of uses. These are the types of people who will not make friends on Twitter or build a network of acquaintances that want them in their lives. I, however, am most definitely not one of them.
I initially joined Twitter back in January 2009 when the website was rapidly spreading across the landscape like an invading force. Celebrities had it, people were hopping on the bandwagon, and so I, too, went along for the ride. The first few months were empty as a lack of followers or anybody to communicate with meant that posting an update merely disappeared into the air like a wisp of exhaled smoke. But slowly and steadily, I began finding people to talk to whose opinions were interesting and meaningful to me. I began growing and solidifying my social web and the bigger it became, the more its tendrils forced their way into my life. I would post whenever I was watching something on television, in turn encouraging active conversation from people watching the same thing. I would offer my opinions on news stories that were in the wild, again initiating further communication on the same topic. And yes, I would also post the occasional picture of what was currently sitting on my dinner plate, because this is the internet and that is inevitably what you do.
Eventually, after months of experiencing exactly what Twitter had to offer to somebody like me, the point arrived where I was instinctively tweeting about anything and everything that I came upon. It didn’t remain exclusive to those activities, either, as I began to learn more about what people were up to, and they of me. Having a screen with which to separate me and the other half of the conversation provided an easier and more comfortable environment to converse with people. I was never a natural conversationalist and found talking to people unfamiliar to me a daunting process–one that usually ended up with me spluttering words like somebody crawling out of a bar at midnight. But on Twitter, that didn’t matter. I didn’t have to worry about how somebody would respond to something I’d just said. I couldn’t see them, only text, and strings of words on a computer screen were far less scary than having somebody right in front of you potentially judging everything you were saying.
Fast-forward to today and my activities on Twitter are largely the same albeit magnified tenfold. I use the website in a variety of ways, not all of them conforming to social interactions: as a news source, gathering stories from an uncountable number of sources and presenting them to me all day every day; as a platform on which to occasionally post updates to the blog posts and articles I’ve written to hopefully encourage visitation on the respective websites; to communicate and interact with so, so many people on things close to my heart, like television, and in return gain new and exciting insights into the very same areas; and, of course, as a social tool. All of the ways I use Twitter never fail to provide exactly what there were intended to do, but out of them all, it’s how I use Twitter as a way to make friends and bring people into my life that is the most interesting.
One thing you should understand about me is that I am not a social animal. I do not go to bars or the cinema or anything of the kind with friends simply because I do not have any. As sad as that may sound, it is entirely true, and as much as I wish it weren’t, it has been for years and remains such today. As I said at the beginning of this article, we all want to have people in our lives and it constantly saddens me that I don’t. There is a void that I constantly wish I could fill, though my minimal (albeit increasingly getting stronger) conversation skills will likely mean that it remains a gaping black hole for the foreseeable future.
This is where Twitter comes into play. Over the years, over the seventy-something thousand posts I have made since I joined the site five years ago, I have formed connections with numerous people. Some stronger than others, some that can be defined as actual friendships, but connections nonetheless. It is this particular aspect of Twitter that has performed the biggest and most substantial change to my life that continues even to this day. Where once I could’ve been reduced to a semi-depressive state due to the lack of people in my life (and that has happened on numerous occasions), I have always had the wonderful, brilliant people on my timeline to go to to brighten my darkened day. The constantly connected nature of Twitter and the way it’s available on almost every mobile phone you can think of–which are in more people’s pockets than you can comprehend–means that these people are always around me, and to have that knowledge means that that gaping chasm in my life doesn’t always look so potentially fatal when I wake up in the morning.
Honestly, there really are few words I can use to describe some of the people I have met on Twitter over the years. I’ve met people from all walks of life, from various countries, those who share the same interests as me, and many more. Actually, it is through one of those same interests that I met most of these people: television. Talking about it at such length and so frequently means that we nearly always have something to talk about, which keeps the connection between us alive and breathing where the lack of communication would otherwise kill it stone dead. I said before that sometimes we meet people in the strangest of ways; meeting people by tweeting about certain television shows certainly qualifies as one of those ways.
It is also through meeting these people, and even just communicating with others in general on the internet, that I have also grown as a person capable of holding conversation. It used to be that I could not initiate conversation whatsoever and would instead wait for the other party to kickstart the events (which more often than not would never happen). And that is still true today, but on a much, much less drastic scale. Being able to talk with people on Twitter, to learn how to come across as friendly and approachable, to learn how to discuss the things you’re both interested in and consequently feel comfortable being who you are, has changed the way I operate in life. I no longer find talking to strangers as incomprehensibly terrifying as I used to. I can speak to a work colleague for more than thirty seconds without my lack of response severing the conversation’s spine. Heck, I can even work within a retail environment and actually love doing so! All of these things I learned from Twitter, and you cannot imagine how thankful I am.
Naturally, there will be some people who read what I have written thus far that will immediately write me off as a social recluse who talks utter drivel. (On some days that’s almost correct, but that’s for another time.) There will also be people who subscribe to the belief that making friends on the internet is impossible, that any friends you make aren’t actually friends but strangers you speak to more than once as to differentiate them from just being strangers. Those people would be incorrect. Totally and utterly incorrect. I know this because I have made friends on Twitter. Actual, genuine friends who I speak to regularly and know things about. I even met with one of those friends nearly a year ago after speaking with each other for years beforehand; I have plans to meet more next month. I daresay there will be more after that. These people are brilliant and I love them to pieces and if that is not a true sign of friendship, then I don’t know what else is.
It’s not difficult to understand how friendships are formed over the internet. As previously mentioned, the screen dividing people allows you to feel more comfortable being who you are without fear of judgement or criticism. Friendships cannot survive if one or both parties are pretending to be something they are not, and thus building one without that card in play arguably creates a stronger bond than those you make in person. I feel comfortable with calling these people my friends because I feel–or I hope–that I know them and they know me and that neither of us will cast unfair scrutiny over the other. It’s just a shame that for people like me, finding connections as strong as these is much more difficult to recreate elsewhere in the world.
The way that Twitter has crept into every corner of my life now means that I could not be without it. I simply rely on it too much. Not just for the uses described earlier but as a way to alleviate the engulfing desire to have friends. Without Twitter I believe I would be just as repressed and self-hidden as I used to be, and such a thought fills me with abject horror. I am still not the person I want to be, but I’m a damn sight closer to it because of Twitter.
It would be so easy to dismiss Twitter–and all other forms of social media–as pointless exercises in expressing thoughts nobody really cares about, as basically nothing more than an SMS service where your texts are sent to everybody’s phones rather than just one. But it can be so much more than that. If you surround yourself with the best types of people (which is really what a strong social circle should be about anyway), it can introduce a whole new concept of social interactivity into your life. It can educate and console you, allow you to make friends and enhance the relationships you already have. It can make the lonely feel surrounded, the disimpassioned interested again, the unappreciated appreciated. It can be the conduit from which you connect to the world, and more specifically, those within it. Writing off social media as pointless, as anti-social, is to ignore what it can and has done for those that utilise it. Twitter has changed my life, and I owe it a debt I could never repay.
(As this is a post focusing on Twitter, it would of course be remiss of me not to suggest you follow me and I follow you. So here I am, suggesting it. I’m at @steosphere. Now where are you?)