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9 November 2008

Twitter is Real Life

There's been a number of stories in recent times that say: Twitter is over (Yammer or FriendFeed or [insert new product name here] will replace it); Ev & Biz et al have no clue how to monetize it (so it will die a nasty death); and so, many critics add, it's not even real life anyway (because how can anything meaningful happen in 140 characters?).

However, having actively participated in Twitter for a while now, one of the most interesting parts of my experience is how it has connected me to more people in real life.

My interests are somewhat eclectic - there are not many people who live in my town who are interested in the web, the world of ideas and philosophy or politics. Thus my opportunities to easily cast a wider net to meet people with similar interests were limited.

I'm not sure that the folks at Twitter actually intended to create a community, but that is one of the by-products of their simple platform with its simple question "What are you doing?"

Within my range of contacts (a.k.a. followers/followees) are a number of people who are now buddies with whom I interact in real life on a regular basis. There are also a number who, while physically distant, are in touch regularly via Twitter and other means such as blogs, Flickr, Viddler, Seesmic, 12seconds.tv, Qik, Ustream, etc.

All of these contacts are building up a level of social knowing and familiarity that was once only accessible via living physically in a neighbourhood. When I was young we lived in the one place and knew all the neighbours at least casually. We knew where they lived, what their Dad did for a job, if their Mum was at home during the day, where they shopped, where the kids went to school, what church they went to, etc. Interestingly, living in big cities I've tended not to know any of that stuff about my neighbours. But in Twitter I know a great deal of that kind of information about my contacts. In fact, for me Twitter is a bit like a virtual neighbourhood.

One of the characteristics of the neighbourhood where I grew up was that if someone was sick we would find out through our casual social contact and then agree who would stop in with food or pick up the kids from school. On Twitter I've seen analogous behaviour - when someone is ill or unhappy their friends organise and coordinate to help them out.

In Twitter, because it is a community, all of the phenomena of community life happen.  There are squabbles, jokes, the ebb and flow of closer relationships. Some other examples of how Twitter is really a community and part of the fabric of real life include:

  • "summarise 6 months since joining Twitter="making friends, widening business acquaintances network and ... 
    ...also got some consulting work explaining to PR ppl how to approach Twitter, social media etc without raising hackles of the community 
    ...making my skills & knowledge visible to the Aussie tech/geek/business community, b4 I was operating under the radar" 
  • "Key case: me and customer service from Dell. They picked up my problem by monitoring Twitter." 
  • "Re RL: one recent eg is I tweeted a link 2 a teaching exercise in my area, which was used by one of my f. the next day to great success. :) "
  • "I found @Stilgherrian thru Crikey, then found Twitter thru his blog, then found new friends and new work on Twitter. Loving it. "
  • "I got a job through Twitter. Got knocked back first time, then got the job 12 months later"
  • "got a job through Happener via Twitter" 
I think that the best summary of my whole argument comes from @stilgherrian who said: "My other point would be Twitter IS real life. Is your relationship with your mother less 'real' because you only phone her?"  It is real life because it has real people involved and we do what comes naturally to humans - we create social networks.  

Yes, it can be argued that it is impossible to have a deep relationship with 2,000 individual people. But the fact is that you can have a deep relationship with some of them, and perhaps even with all of them at different times if you have enough time. It's not compulsory to have a deep relationship with everyone you meet (that is actually a bit strange if you do).  However, it is entirely reasonable to have a wide range of acquaintances and some closer friends - again, just like real life.  

A really valuable thing that Twitter has done is to ensure that I am no longer a complete stranger in most places in the world. Wherever I go there is some acquaintance on Twitter who can connect me to people, places or things anywhere in the world and with an ease that is amazing. I am connected through Twitter to a remarkable and fascinating web of people that other channels like email, IRC, etc did not enable.  I attribute this difference between Twitter and other social network channels to the fact that Twitter really does create a network of loose ties that can become stronger in various contexts.

By Carruthers via Aide-mémoire

2 comments:

jachichi said...

One of the most common ways Twitter has helped us IRL is the question/answer wondrousness of Twitter. I've seen it happen so many times, and to me as well, that someone tweets a question asking for recommendations about work techniques, travel, eating-spots, etc., and within an instant Real Live People respond with their views. Views from people you follow for whatever reason are often more trusted and more authentic than results in Google.

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