Tweeting about what you had for breakfast may seem ludicrous, but connecting online is leading to the creation of new communities, and even families
Written by Kate Bevan
Early in November I found myself with a friend at a smart hotel in Mayfair, London, at a special screening of Gravity, the space thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, hosted by the physicist and television presenter Brian Cox. After the film, there were warm welcomes from Maggie Philbin, best known for her time presenting the classic BBC program Tomorrow’s World, from the best-selling author JoJo Moyes and from Gia Millinovich, the American science broadcaster who is married to Cox, who had invited me to the event.
I chatted to them and the Australian musician and comedian Tim Minchin, and wondered how on earth I’d ended up hanging out with the geekerati. The answer was: Twitter. And Facebook. I had met all these people via social networking.
I joined Facebook in December 2006 and Twitter just three months later. At that time the fledgling microblogging site was a little-known hangout for geeks. I only discovered it when a colleague covering the South by Southwest Music festival in Austin, Texas, informed us back at base that rather than via email, we could reach him via Twitter. None of us had heard of it. Looking at the site then, I wasn’t entirely sure I could see the point of it. Once SXSW was over, I let my account lie dormant for a while until I was tasked with writing a piece about Twitter and thought I’d better actually start using it.
Period of discovery
I quickly discovered a friendly little community of writers, bloggers and others in the tech world. Back then, you could see all the tweets that users directed at individuals: by watching conversations between other people, I could see who sounded interesting or funny or thoughtful, and so followed them. That was a rich period of discovery, and it was then that I started following a number of people I still talk to regularly.
Among those people was @Geeklawyer, later revealed to be barrister David Harris, who briefly shot to notoriety in the Twittersphere when he was hauled over the coals for his irreverent, acerbic tweets about the legal profession and was subsequently disbarred for representing in court a company which he had neglected to reveal that he owned. More happily, we who followed him watched with joy as he courted another Twitter user, @JessRhian, and then we cheered them on as the pair acquired cats (@pru_kitteh and @Silly_Sylv), got married and had a baby.
Says Harris: “Stephen Fry brought us together, though he doesn’t know that.” He explains that at a Twitter charity event, a Twestival, he and another legal blogger, @Oedipus_Lex, had bid on a pledge that the actor, broadcaster and writer Fry, one of the most prolific and prominent of the UK Twitterati, had promised to swear at the winner of the bid. @Oedipus_Lex duly won and, as Harris puts it, Fry thus “went on a splenetic rant” via Twitter at the winner.
What followed was a wonderful example of social media serendipity. Rhian, who followed Fry, saw the winning tweet at @Oedipus_Lex and, amused, started to follow and to interact with him. Twitter users can no longer see tweets that are directed via the @ symbol at individual users unless they follow both participants in a conversation, but at the time, everyone could see all those conversations. So Rhian, following @Oedipus_Lex, started to interact with Harris. “I thought she was a man,” says Harris. “She had a male Morris dancer as her avatar and I thought ‘Jess’ could be a man’s name. I talked to her as a bloke and she never indicated otherwise.”
Some 18 months later the pair finally met. “We just hit it off,” remembers Harris. “She was a charming, friendly, engaging person who stuck with me being Geeklawyer at her.” The couple married in February 2012, and their son, Silas, was born in September 2013. Harris, whose online personality is bumptious and acerbic, sounds almost humble when he says: “Twitter changed my life. I was a lawyer in London, hanging out with lawyers, doing lawyerly things. I would never have met a teacher from Shropshire.”
He puts his finger on the real delight of the site: it takes you out of your own circle and exposes you to others you would otherwise never have met. “The friction of engagement is reduced,” says Harris. By that he means that you don’t have to choose a community, such as Mumsnet, where you have a good idea of the kind of people who will be there. Instead, “you just run into random people”.
I have always enjoyed the randomness of Twitter, and the huge variety of people I’ve found there, such as Sue Cook, an author and former TV presenter. Sue and I bonded over our cats (hers is @PatchesPusscat; mine is @Daphnethecat) and eventually moved our friendship offline, where it thrives. We joke that we should have been friends 25 years ago: I started my career at the BBC’s Lime Grove studios, beginning there not long after the long-running news magazine Nationwide, for which Cook was one of the presenters, had made its final broadcast. Sue and I reckon we missed working together at Lime Grove by about a year.
Twitter and Facebook were not my first experiences of what we now call social networking. I first had a computer at home in the late 1990s, an IBM PC with an Intel 386 processor that ran Windows for Workgroups 3.11. I attached a modem to it and signed up with Compuserve as my internet service provider. Why Compuserve? Those were the days when CDs that signed you up to an ISP were pushed through your letterbox; the Compuserve disk was the one I happened to put in my PC that day.
Back then Compuserve provided forums for its users. I had a cat; I joined the Cats forum, which was my first experience of interacting with strangers online. I was captivated by the friendliness of the people in the forum, many of them middle-aged American ladies who were devoted to their feline friends. To this day I’m still in contact, via Facebook, with one of them.
Once I had broadband installed – a painfully slow connection by today’s standards – I drifted away from the Compuserve forums and found handbag.com, which in about 2004, when I joined, was a busy and lively community. Back then, anonymity was a given; everyone used a handle and went to great lengths to conceal their real identities – very different from the expectation now on Facebook and Twitter that you use your real name.
Rules and rituals
The handbag.com community was a real eye-opener. In many ways it reminded me of the girls’ boarding school I’d been at in the 1970s and early 1980s: a place with cliques and prefects (the hosts, appointed by the all-powerful “Admin”), with arcane rules and initially incomprehensible rituals. It was a mix of the prudish and the explicit. There were dramas galore as the “Admin”, employed by handbag.com to preside over and police the community, proved unable to manage an unruly collection of women who variously sucked up to him or taunted him. Toward the end of my time he was imposing a series of increasingly absurd rules, such as the edict that nobody was allowed to discuss the banning of a member, on pain of being banned themselves. That led to the convention that whenever a popular member was banned from the forum, her friends (and sometimes her enemies) would, in defiance of the rule, take the banned member’s avatar as their own. I still remember the pleasure I felt on the day of my own banning to see pages of posts by people who’d put up my avatar – a photograph of my cat – in tribute.
Perhaps inevitably, handbag.com fell apart as the remaining members splintered and created their own forums. And it was friends from handbag.com who pointed me toward Facebook in December 2006: many “baggers”, as we were known, were students, and had had early access to the site. I loved it.
Via Facebook I keep loosely in touch with people I probably would have lost touch with years ago.
I’ve re-established contact with those I was at university with, and my friends’ list is wildly eclectic, ranging from journalists to women I haven’t seen since our last day at St Hilda’s School, Whitby. My own upcoming 50th birthday party will in many ways be a giant meet of many of my Facebook friends; indeed, the party has been largely arranged via the site.
While I restrict Facebook to people I actually know, I’m available to anyone who wants to interact with me on Twitter. I treat it like a giant conversation, one you can wander in to at any point, pick up a strand or three and then wander off again when it suits. Which brings me back to that screening of Gravity. I was invited by Gia Millinovich (@giagia), whom I’ve been friendly with for a couple of years via both Twitter and latterly Facebook. Yet we had never met in person until that screening. I was touched by her Tweet the next day, when she said she’d finally “met @katebevan’s atoms and bones”.
For those who don’t understand the power of social media and don’t get why anyone would want to Tweet about their breakfast, or why anyone would bother to interact with people doing so, that Tweet perhaps sums it up: it’s about the serendipity of finding people you chime with. Real friendships – and relationships – can be built online. Meeting the atoms and bones of those people is just the icing on the cake.
Kate Bevan is a writer and broadcaster who specializes in technology and social media. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Financial Times and The Guardian, and she has been a regular commentator for BBC TV and Radio and Sky News.
A networked day
First thing: Make coffee, feed @Daphnethecat (who is also on Facebook), check emails, Twitter @ messages and direct messages, and Facebook notifications and messages, and deal with anything urgent. If I’m working away from home, my early-morning scan will also include a specific look at any Tweets from the underground train lines I’m going to use to check for any problems that might affect my journey.
Morning: at my desk. Depending on my workload, I spend an hour or so reading through my Twitter stream, joining in conversations, following links posted by others and checking out interesting hashtags. I’ll also scan my Facebook newsfeed and if I’m not too busy, join in with conversations there.
Daytime: if I’m working at home, I keep Facebook, my Twitter stream, my Twitter @ messages and any particularly interesting or important hashtags open in separate tabs in my browser. I Tweet and/or post to Facebook any links that particularly catch my eye, and monitor and take part in any conversations that flow from those posts.
If I’m working on something that needs input from other people I often ask for opinions or contacts on Facebook and/or Twitter – I use both as a hive mind and a network.
I also post to Daphne’s Facebook and Twitter if she is being particularly funny, and join in any conversations that develop from those posts. I started doing her social media during a patch when I wasn’t doing much writing, and I now do it partly to demonstrate that I can build and maintain a community around a voice that isn’t “mine”, but also because she’s fun to write for. I also (sporadically) maintain her Tumblr: http://daphnethecat.com/
If I’m out and about and spot something that makes me laugh or is a particularly lovely view or is otherwise remarkable, I’ll take and post a photo, usually to Facebook rather than Twitter, as I tend to keep photographs for my friends rather than share them with the wider and more random Twitter community. If I’ve got a decent 3G signal, I check back later to see if there are any reactions to my picture and respond.
I post Tweets/Facebook statuses about everyday matters while I’m out: public transport woes, or checking in if I’m somewhere particularly noteworthy, such as taking part in a TV or radio program.
Evening: I have both Facebook and Twitter running on my laptop if I’m home watching TV and will take part in conversations around some programs – current affairs shows such as BBC2’s Newsnight always have a lively Twitter commentary going on, and BBC1’s Question Time on Thursday night is huge fun – it’s like having hundreds of people sitting on the sofa shouting at the TV with you. Twitter in particular has turned some programs into communal events.
This is also when I do my occasional updates to my Pinterest books board or my Windows board, though I’m not a big user of Pinterest.
Late evening: I’m a night owl, so I’m usually still awake when friends in Asia come online and friends in the US get home after work and are more active, so that’s when I catch up with them, via their Facebook posts or their comments on my threads, or via instant messaging or email.