A Very Social Medium

This year was my twelfth year on Twitter. It's grown from one of many experimental social media platforms back then to something everyone has heard of. Despite its now corporate nature and the way it can be constantly abused and used as a channel for bile and hatred by the cowardly and the loud, there is still something about it I find compelling.

Many of the important features that have come to define the platform (@-ing people, RTing a tweet) were first invented by early users of the system and it's partly these home-grown origins that I like ("...the street finds its own uses for things..." William Gibson, Burning Chrome) but what keeps me coming back is something else, something personal.

I can of course see where the main criticisms are coming from but I disagree with them.

"Oh it's just boring, who wants to read what someone had for breakfast every morning?"

If that's all you're seeing then you're following the wrong people. It's a big internet, somewhere out there are (a) people who do want to know what @JennyHollister had for breakfast and (b) people who are tweeting about things you do want to know. If someone's tweets aren't to your taste you don't have to follow them. It's like complaining that you hate using the library because you don't like Westerns (and they have half a shelf of them next to the historical fiction).

"It's not real and distracts people from real social interaction. Put down your phones and talk to a real person! Stop being antisocial! These people aren't your friends!"

This is the big one. The one I disagree with the most.  But I can see why some people, people who perhaps don't have trouble socialising in real life, might think this. Why stay in hunched over your phone or in front of your laptop when you could be out partying or in the pub?

Well, there are many and varied reasons. I'm going to describe mine but I am sure there will be some overlap with other people's.

I've always been prone to anxiety in crowded social situations. I've never quite known what to say or how to engage people in conversation. I have learned conversational openers to employ but it's tricky remembering so many and calculating what to say several responses ahead can be extremely mentally draining. The news that most people did this without thinking was astonishing to me.

Then there's the noise. Social situations often tend to take place in pubs or cafes. If there are more than a few conversations going on around me I find it hard to concentrate on the right one. I start getting sensory overload. It's not that the actual decibel level is higher for me - that would be silly - but I do begin to have trouble processing it all at once, my anxiety levels start ramping up and sometimes when it is particularly bad I need to go and hide somewhere and take a valium.

As a result I find these social situations, this stuff that is so much more "real",  very exhausting indeed.

I can do it of course (even if I do make a hash of it and people end up wondering why I'm sitting in a corner not saying much) but can't keep at it for as long as some people. I need to break off and spend time on my own recharging my energy.

Even if you didn't already know from other posts I've made on this blog, some of this is because I am autistic. Not all autistic people are the same of course; however this is how my particular flavour of autism affects my behaviour and why I like to spend time on my own.

This love of solitude doesn't mean that I don't get lonely. I may find traditional social gatherings difficult and draining but that doesn't mean I dislike talking to people. Put me in a one-to-one situation with a person I gel with and there's nothing I enjoy more. The problem is that in a traditionally structured life this is quite difficult to engineer on a regular basis.

This is where Twitter comes in. By their very nature the people I follow are going to be people I have some things in common with and if we've been hanging around in the same electronic social space for ages, sometimes years and years, then of course they are going to feel like friends. I've even dreamed about a few of them regularly.

I've never met them in real life but I am happy to talk to them about quite deep and occasionally personal subjects; subjects I might not be comfortable talking about in person.

However sometimes I wonder if I am sharing too much. Should I reign in my comments on Twitter and restrict myself to puns, isn't this cool posts, politics and plugging? I don't want to appear attention seeking or needy, and some people have pointed out that there's a danger that any posts I might make about, say, mental health might be seen by a potential employer and put them off.

That's a fair point, but the only problem is - where else am I going to express them? I have trouble enough with small talk in real life. Many times when I've actually psyched myself up to taking part in a social situation I've found myself without much to contribute to the discussions about the partner, the kids or the car and end up in one corner within half an hour or so due to some sort of conversational Brownian motion. This even happened once at my leaving do for a previous job...

If I had to restrict myself to that on Twitter as well, where could I express myself?

I think talking about mental health and other serious issues is good for us; attempts to keep things light and frothy are in the long run just sweeping matters under the carpet and perpetuating the stigma.

Furthermore in recent weeks I've read Twitter threads on subjects such as people's experiences with autism before and after diagnosis, suicide ideation and people pleasing behaviour. I found all of these compelling and what is more important they made me feel less alone. I'd never met the people who wrote them but I knew exactly what they were talking about as I'd experienced those feelings too. These threads made me feel better about myself and more understood. Other people had gone through this before me, survived and thrived.

If something I write about mental health on Twitter makes just one person feel less alone then it's worth it despite how many might consider it Too Much Information.


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