How Twitter is Putting the ‘Social’ Back into Social Media

I tried to flog this piece to The Guardian Comment is Free, but they sent it back and said it was “a bit too meta for CiF”.  I thought that this was literally the funniest thing anyone had ever said to me ever.

There’s been a slew of articles of late about how Twitter is revitalising television viewing; recreating the shared experience of watching telly together that’s been lost since families stopped arranging their lives around the TV schedules, and transforming we lonely couch-potatoes into sparkling social media butterflies who can amass hundreds of followers just by saying something sarcastic about [INSERT POP CULTURE REFERENCE HERE].  Lucy Mangan wrote about it in The Guardian (‘How Twitter Saved Event TV’), as well as Simon Kelner in the Independent (‘How Twitter Has Become the Virtual Sitting Room of Our Time’).

There is, I can attest, something about the shared experience that makes everything televisual suddenly far more entertaining, as long as you can handle the necessary multitasking element.  Suddenly, I can’t remember how I ever managed to enjoy a TV programme without knowing which of my peers are watching at the same time and what their views are on the latest plot development.  And it seems almost impossible to believe that we ever tuned into unabashedly crass, lowest-common-denominator telly (the sort of thing tedious people tediously like to refer to as a “guilty pleasure”) without the opportunity to snigger behind our laptop screens at it, retweeting pithy one-liners from people far funnier, hotter and more cuttingly satirical than us.

Admittedly, a lot of it’s to do with ego; even the hardest of souls can’t fail to be compelled by the self-esteem boost that comes from making a particularly good joke and then seeing it retweeted to all and sundry.  There’s just something beautifully ephemeral about that perfectly-formed 140 character thought being passed on, and passed on, and passed on; until it develops a whole life of its own and goes off dancing and spinning through the meme-pool, sparkling like a gadfly for one heady moment in the sun.  But it’s also to do with community; feeling as though you belong.  So what if you’ve always felt a bit alienated from the rest of your peer-group for enjoying listening to The Archers omnibus of a Sunday?  Here’s a ready-made peer-group for you, all under one handy hashtag and all raring to discuss the goings on in Ambridge as they unfold.

Lately, however, I’ve been noticing a pull back in the other direction.  People are enjoying this new communal experience so much that they’re beginning to (in a step that can be seen as strangely regressive and counterintuitive) bring their online conversations back into real life (or ‘meatspace’, if you want to use the more derogatory term).  I’m not talking about anything so crass or simplistic as actually communicating verbally (after all, what would be the point? There’s nothing ‘social’ about that; you can’t even Like it), but about enjoying Twitter whilst also spending time with other people.  As in, actual people, who exist in all three dimensions and everything.  I’m talking about putting the ‘social’ back into ‘social media’.

That’s why the BBC Question Time tweetalong I run each month at Hackney Picturehouse is proving so popular and (can I actually write this word and still forgive myself?) zeitgeistig; people want to take their online experience and transform it into something more tangible and sociable.  We all enjoy sitting at home, yelling at the telly with a bottle of wine in one hand and a smartphone in the other – and it’s just a small step from that to doing it together, in a room full of like-minded people.

I’m not alone in having picked up on this trend.  A cursory glance down the list of upcoming shows on the SRO Audiences website reveals a new panel game presented by @wossy (Or ‘Jonathan Ross’, as he’s more commonly known IRL) called ‘Trending Topics’, as well as a show BBC Comedy are producing called ‘@cuff’, billed as a “night of live improv and stand up where your tweets and status updates make the comedy happen – the only gig we know where you are told to keep your phones on throughout!”.

At the BBCQT Tweetalong, we try to make it a bit more a mixed bag in terms of entertainment: comedians and political speakers kick off the night, there’s time to hobnob with each other in person between acts and (most important of all) a fully stocked bar.  But there’s no denying that it does make for a slightly strange atmosphere at times; even though you’re physically in the same location as the people around you, you only really feel connected to them when you open up your twitter client and tap in the appropriate hashtag.

So where is this leading?  There’s more than a smidgen of the Black Mirroresque about the idea of people sitting in rooms together, staring at a large screen on the wall and communicating with each other only via handheld devices.   But the school of thought that says modern technology is making us more and more antisocial is a complete nonsense; we’re simply moving towards new, more fluid models of interaction where there’s less emphasis put on the importance of face-to-face conversation.    And personally, I welcome that.  In real life, I never know what to do with my arms.


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