Does Twitter foster a false sense of closeness?

As I wrote here recently, I’ve joined the ranks of twitterers. Earlier today I was thinking about who I’m following. It breaks down into basically only 2 categories, which are not mutually exclusive: people I know well or reasonably well and care about personally (Yvonne, Scott, Paul, etc.), and people who I think are interesting enough to spend some time reading their tweets (Jessamyn West, David Weinberger, Howard Rheingold, etc.). Even the way I refer to the people in these categories is different: the examples of the former are all first-name basis, while the examples of the latter require first & last names. This is, I think, telling.

(There is, I suppose, a 3rd category: tools such as RTM and hashtags. But as those are not people in the traditional sense, I’m going to just ignore them here.)

As I said, I’m following Jessamyn West; I’m also following Jason Griffey, and Casey Bisson. They’re all fairly prolific tweeters, and apparently know each other as there’s some @ crosstalk between them. So here not only do I get a glimpse into their twitter-filtered streams of consciousness, I also get a glimpse into their relationships with one another.

Frankly, that makes me feel like a bit of a voyeur. I know Jason a bit; we overlapped in my early days in SILS. I’ve met Jessamyn once, when she came to give a talk here at UNC back in 2005. I don’t know Casey at all. But I now have the (I think misplaced) feeling that I could go up to Casey and say, “So what were you doing in Philly anyway?” To which he would be completely justified in saying, “Who the frak are you?”

So does Twitter foster a false sense of closeness? I suddenly have a reasonably intimate view into people’s lives who I know only in the most friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend way. Ok, it’s partly their fault for making their tweetstreams public, so some schmuck off the street can follow them. But suddenly I have the ability to peer in the windows of these people whose lives I have no reason to be looking into, other than curiosity.

Of course, as I’ve been writing this, I’m realizing that this meditation is no different from Fred’s question, What does it mean to have 1000 friends, in the context of Facebook? Online social networks redefine relationships. I’m still getting my head around what that means. Fred and probably many others passed this point long ago.

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2 Responses to Does Twitter foster a false sense of closeness?

  1. John Rees says:

    I share your feeling. I have met some of the twitters I follow (and follow me) in person. I remember one time I noticed one of the local twitters I follow in Weaver Street. I thought of going up and saying hi, but somehow I just didn’t do it. The idea just felt too weird to me It does seem odd that I could be looking across the room in a coffee shop and see someone I know who just lost a job, been sick, or split up with a loved one, and never have once spoken a single word to.

    I am fairly new to on-line social networking. I was attracted to it because I have two high school kids, and I wanted to learn about what they use and why. Naturally, it has been fueled by my own natural curiosity as well. I will continue to be interested in seeing how this all affects society.

  2. PomeRantz says:

    Aha! Vindicated! See this paper:

    Social networks that matter: Twitter under the microscope
    http://www.hpl.hp.com/research/scl/papers/twitter/twitter.pdf

    On p.6:
    “This implies the existence of two different networks: a very dense one made up of followers and followees, and a sparser and simpler network of actual friends.”

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