Twitter is funny, kind of strange. And trying to explain it to someone who has never used it is equally strange: ‘ So, you write short passages of text, no more than 140 characters, about anything you want (you can add pictures too) and post it for mainly strangers to see. And people follow you so they can read what you write. You follow others so you can read what they write’. That’s it. But, most people would ask simply, ‘why?’ And that’s the question I’ve been asking myself. Why do I, and millions of people (last count around 500 million) around the world, participate in this very peculiar social exchange?
Twitter has grown out of the need for people to connect and communicate. It is becoming more popular than Facebook, that other social phenomena, but why is it more popular? Perhaps it is because we are restricted to 140 characters and our exchanges are therefore more dynamic and spontaneous. But, I think it’s more than that.
On Facebook, we, in the main, have ‘friends’ who very often are not friends at all. On Twitter, we start with followers, who somehow can and do become friends. At least, that has been my experience. I think if you had told me this time last year that one of the first things I would do when I wake up is check my Twitter account I wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s what has happened. Because, there on Twitter are lives I’ve become interested in and want to know more about. There, within something that may seem superficial and facile, I’ve found people who communicate simply and openly. All ages; nationalities; ethnic groups, our differences are blurred as we share common hopes and dreams, sometimes our fears and doubts. But we’ve never met, we may never meet except for the time spent in the multicultural Twitter village.
The Twitter ‘family’ that I joined grew out of a common bond. We all follow and admire the same person (doesn’t really matter who) but that has almost become secondary to why we stay in touch with each other. If someone from the family doesn’t tweet for a day we are concerned, if someone seems unhappy and down, we offer help and advice. And we make each other laugh until we cry. In my book, that is a sort of family. And I wonder, are these friendships any less than the friends and family we rarely see and hear from? The truth is, I don’t know.
On Twitter, not everyone is nice. If someone writes something we don’t like, we can ‘unfollow’ or block them. Then we need never hear from them again. I think sometimes how simpler our lives would be if we could do this in ‘real’ life too. But, perhaps, this is why Twitter is so appealing. In that Twitter world we can control who and what we want to hear. And, in an ever increasingly chaotic life, we crave some order and control and a place to feel safe. Maybe we just want to edit out what gives us pain.
But, there is another element to Twitter and perhaps it’s the basis of Twitter’s real popularity. It’s the overlap, or even reinforcement of the 21st century’s obsession with celebrity. There is a whole section of Twitter that has been taken over by music and film stars, ‘wanna be’ stars, journalists, writers, entrepreneurs and businesses that use it as a platform to sell their brand. And, in return, they interact with ‘ordinary’ people. To follow a celebrity or someone in the public eye means that you can read what they are doing and thinking at any given time and comment on that. To have a celebrity follower, in turn, bring with it enormous kudos in Twitter world. But one might ask why that matters, if indeed it does. For me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of Twitter and its popularity and also one that makes me feel uneasy. Mainly because I’m also caught up in that peculiar never-never land and I don’t quite understand why.
I don’t know if my fascination and love of Twitter will continue. One day, I will probably become bored with what it offers and stray back into real life. But, what of the friends I made there? What of the need to share and laugh about our common loves and fears? Will that be fulfilled elsewhere? I really don’t know. But, until then, I’ll enjoy what I’ve found in cyber space. Why not?
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