Geek Friendships and Twitter

I’ve written a bit before about Twitter and friendships, most specifically last summer in a post focusing on folks meeting up for the first time at a number of upcoming cons called “IRL is Real Stupid.” However, at the time I wrote that, I had not yet had the chance to really meet in person anyone I’d come to know on Twitter. Very happily, that has changed over the last few months, and I’ve come to realize something: geeks are fundamentally different in how we approach friendships, both in life-away-from-keyboard (I don’t use the phrase “in real life” as I don’t agree that what happens online isn’t real. Instead I use the term LAFK or “life away from keyboard.”) and online in places like Twitter.

Without diving belly-first to wallow in the swamp that is defining “geek,” I certainly feel that in general, geeks tend to have . . . hmm, how best to say this? . . . issues with socializing. Either through a natural introversion (raises hand) and/or through the experience of being ostracized for being “different” (raises hand again), we can be a little gun shy when it comes to interacting and developing relationships with others, especially in person. So why is making friends on Twitter different? Especially considering that in only 140 characters and missing all the nuanced visual, auditory communication that is possible in-person, misunderstanding and error seem so likely to throw a wrench into developing relationships with people.

I don’t know — but I have a theory. The very weaknesses of Twitter are actually benefits when it comes to geeks.

Consider the autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Common characteristics: “qualitative impairments of social communication and interaction, along with restricted and repetitive activities and interests.” To most geeks, there will probably be some application of that to all of us. Now, I am not denigrating either Asperger’s or autism as a valid diagnosis of a real disorder, nor am I implying everyone who is a geek is somehow suffering a disorder. But having established that whatever factors lead to autism spectrum disorders likely involves multiple variables, many of which are genetic, and produce a variety of outcomes, could it not be a valid argument that geeks are on on the outer fringe of this behavior? Perhaps geeks are just, through a tweak of genetics/environment,  displaying various degrees of behavior while not having to deal with the most severe consequences?

So how does this relate to geek friendships on Twitter? From the Wikipedia link above:

“Making and maintaining friendships often proves to be difficult for children with autism. For them, the quality of friendships, not the number of friends, predicts how lonely they are, despite the common belief that they prefer to be alone.”

For myself, that has always been true, and from talking with other geeks, their experiences were the same. We like whom we like deeply, and will gladly spend time with those people, while eschewing the company of others, which leads everyone else to believe we’re all introverts or anti-social. So why is this? Much of the research on ASD shows that another common characteristic is a lack of filters of information, which can lead to everything from delayed language development (with so much information coming in, a child’s language centers become overwhelmed, and must work harder and longer to do the sort of processing that allows us to learn language) to difficulties picking up on social communication and cues when dealing with others. Again, if you take that trait, and dial it down a notch or two, do you not have the prototypical geek that notices things (different builds of lightsabers flashing by on a screen in milliseconds, minute faults with prop replicas, continuity issues with films, etc.) that most people don’t?

If we accept that, than suddenly it might make a little more sense that geeks have trouble with in-person social interactions, aside from whatever influence introversion or past experience has. After all, in person, there is so much information to process — is that person really saying what I think they’re saying? — why did she look away then back at me just now? — what sort of judgment is he making about me? While there are still disagreements over exact percentages, research seems to indicate that the majority of all in-person communication is derived from nonverbal behavior, meaning body language, pitch and tone of voice, etc — essentially, everything but the words themselves.

And what is Twitter, but almost exclusively words and nothing else? Sure we have a stable of emoticons to go to for clarification, but if you’re conversing with someone on Twitter, it comes down to words and very little else. As geeks, we like this. It dispenses with all of that other stuff, and allows us to get to know someone and make judgments about what kind of relationship we might want to develop with them, without being overwhelmed with too much information. The natural affinity of geeks for Twitter really is a case of less being more, I believe.

One of the upsides of this is that I believe we form meaningful attachments more quickly on Twitter than other people, and indeed in some cases more quickly even than in LAFK. We tend to be a judgmental lot, and if we decide someone meets whatever metric we’re using, then we see no reason to play any social games in developing a relationship — they’re suddenly a friend, and we proceed normally from there. Another advantage is that throughout most of human history, people like us have been isolated from each other. Now with Twitter and other social media, we can get to know and become friends with people who are in different states, countries, and even continents. Suddenly we have more options, as we are no longer slaves to geography!

What started me thinking about all of this was my own recent experiences in finally meeting some people from Twitter I very much consider close friends. In the most auspicious way possible, it started out with Ruth (@ruthbeingruth / @cthulhuchick) and her husband coming over to our house for dinner. They got to meet me, my wife (@KatMByrne) and probably most fun for them, our kids Thing 1 (my 8 year old son) and Thing2 (my 2 year old daughter). A more enjoyable evening could not have been imagined, and literally from the moment I opened the door and saw them, it was like “Oh, there’s Ruth!” and it was just like they were friends I’d known for quite some time and just hadn’t seen for awhile. And for the record, Ruth is just as amazing and nice as you would expect if you follow her, and having seen them a few times since I can attest it was not a fluke 🙂

So what could possibly follow that? How about separate visits from Kylee (@KyleeLane) and Jess (@toasterlicious)? Kylee came to visit us in January and Jess just this past weekend. For those that haven’t followed me on Twitter for very long, these two are known as my #MUPS, a hashtag I invented that stands for “Made-Up Pseudo-Siblings” and very much means quite a bit more than that to me. I started following Kylee almost exactly a year ago and followed Jess almost as long. With both of them, once we started talking on Twitter, there was an almost instantaneous relationship that developed — quickly becoming friends, and then recognizing the amazing similarities between us, moving on to a type of sibling relationship. I truly think of both of them as my siblings and would do anything for them. Meeting them in person didn’t even make me nervous (and I am not a “social” being by any means), it just simply confirmed everything I felt about them already. Basically that they are awesome, which if you also follow them, you know already.

My point in this is not to brag about the awesome people I’ve met on Twitter (there are many in addition to the three I just mentioned), nor is it to gloat about the fact I got to meet them in person. Many of you have already met in-person far more people they’ve met on Twitter than I have (though I would argue about anyone being more amazing than these three). My point is to address something I’ve felt is still in the back of many people’s minds, though almost never spoken (or tweeted) aloud — how real is a friendship on Twitter?

My feeling is that Twitter friendships are just as real as you act on Twitter. Ruth, Jess, and Kylee are three of the most down-to-earth “real” people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Meeting them in person was just a continuation of the relationship I already had with each of them, and I credit that to them being exactly who they presented themselves to be on Twitter, IMs, emails, and phone calls. Just like in LAFK, the relationships you build are only invalid if someone acts like someone they’re not.

I feel extremely lucky to have made the friendships I’ve have on Twitter. Like many of you, I’ve traditionally only had a small circle of close friends and tended to shy away from the social games needed to be part of a larger group. Now I find myself one of many like myself, and in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, I count many of you as better friends than most I’ve met only in-person. Perhaps it’s those personal characteristics that seem to dovetail with the fringe of autism spectrum disorders that make friendships on Twitter easier to make, or maybe it’s something else. Whatever the cause, I want those of you who are my friends through Twitter to know that I consider it a privilege to know you and I hope to meet many more of you in the future. This next month I’ll be down in San Juan and look forward to meeting @GeekShui (and hopefully making it to Guavate *grin*) and I would dearly love to meet Lesley (@geeksoap), her husband Lucas (@fubbleskag) and their little geekling who is on the way! And there are so many more I want to meet beyond that — not to “validate” or “make real” our friendships, but just to perhaps deepen or expand them.

Summing up this long, rambling, and some might say ultimately pointless post: Yes, friendships on Twitter are real if you are. Yes, there may be a reason why geeks in particular seem predisposed to befriending each other on Twitter. No, I really do have some of the most awesome friends and I’m so happy I got to start meeting some of them in person. And in the words of those great sages of cinema “Be excellent to each other.”

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10 Replies to “Geek Friendships and Twitter”

  1. YES! And in my experience, this is true of the internets in general, not just Twitter — have had this happen with bloggers, Metafilter people, even folks I know from email lists.

  2. That’s nice! Haven’t met any tweeps in person yet, but one day we will finally make that pie date (even though now @JentheAmazing will have to fly back across the country – hope she brings the Wookie).

    I was pretty severely socially awkward until I learned that 90% of people really just want to talk about the weather. Those people will never be my best friends, but at least learning that about them took me past my agoraphobia.

  3. The high point of DragonCon was meeting people I knew on Twitter — the excellent @toasterlicious, @geeksoap and @fubbleskag, included.

    Okay, that’s a lie — the best part was meeting Tom Savini, but meeting my Tweeps was a close second. 😛

    –@gamecouch

  4. Being a geek/gamer myself AND a parent of a child on the autism spectrum…I had some interesting things to add. However, my browser decided to be a douche and crash. It was all lost….

    1. Oh no!!! I would be very interested to hear what you have to say on this! Well, I hope if you have the time/inspiration, you’re consider giving it another go.

  5. Excellent observations and correlations. Though I have chatted via video on Skype with a number of Twitter friends, have yet to meet any in person. I can say from the video chat experiences that what you say is true. If you’ve spoken in 140-character bursts with someone for more than a few months, it’s unlikely that there will be much awkwardness. It’s hard to hide one’s true disposition for a prolonged period. At some point, if nastiness exists, it’s bound to slip out. I look forward to the chance to meet my first Twitter friend “AFTK” next month!

  6. Having recently become one of your Twitter friends through my daughter, @chibi_missy, I can say all of this is true.
    I know my family has streaks of ASD, starting with my extremely shy father who just passed. My aunt said he was “painfully” shy as a child. I’ve been AFK friends with very few people, but those people understand who I am, and actually we all are very much alike in this regard. My children turned out the same except for Erin, who “doesn’t get” Twitter.
    I started communicating at the keyboard with Bulletin Board Systems – BBS’s in the late 80s. I made some terrific friends, went to some great AFK parties, and even wrote snail mail to them. It progressed to Compu-serve, Prodigy, and IRC. I met my husband, @thegoodian on IRC in late 1996.
    I’ve met in person @RavenLightholme, @physicistLisa, and her husband @RyanBurke. All VERY wonderful people. I look forward to eventually meeting @theroseinbloom. I find the tag #MUPS interesting . Almost everyone I’ve encountered on Twitter considers me a maternal figure which I fight every day. (Inside my head I’m still 17) So, I think of most of the people I’ve found to be Made Up Pseudo Children. There are many who i would also consider MUPS.
    This is a great post. /me waves to @geekShui!!

  7. I think maybe before I became a mom, I might have agreed with you on the ASD part. Before my son’s diagnosis, I didn’t know what autism looked like. I only knew what people told me or what I read. It’s not until you actually see it every day and learn from the psychologists/therapists/doctors every week, what the actual autism characteristics are and what aren’t.

    With that said, I do notice a certain social awkwardness between some geeks/gamers. To me, it’s more of a shyness. I think it’s because being a geek is not a mainstream thing. At a high school, are you more likely to see preps and jocks or geeks/gamers? There’s also that stereotype that geeks/gamers are weirdos, weak, unpopular, etc. They’re usually bullied in movies and TV. However, around other geeks/gamers, I don’t see them being shy at all. There’s common ground.

    I also have some friends that I met on the internet or Xbox Live that I feel closer with than my actual local friends. On the internet, it’s easier to find people you have things in common with. It’s up to you where to look. You can go to gaming message boards, playing games online that you already like, etc. There’s literally hundreds of communities out there for geeks. In our local areas, we’re limited to where we can look, especially if we’re out of school. It’s not likely that you will find a community of geeks in your local area, although it’s not impossible.

    That’s just my opinion.

    As far as autism goes, “social issues” are just one characteristic. (There are very specific social issues other than not being able to relate to others.) There are also neurological problems, sensory problems, speech delay (except in the case of Asperger’s), stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms, and so much more.

    I’m not going to go into detail about it, I would be here ALL day! Instead, I will leave you with this: http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/ Just remember, if you’ve seen one kid with autism, you’ve only seen one kid with autism. The spectrum or degrees between people with ASD vary so much.

    Also, April is Autism Awareness Month! ❤

    But, I digress…

    I do feel that I have true friendships with some people online. I would hang out with them if/when we ever meet in-person.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, and very glad this one didn’t get stolen by your browser 🙂 Completely understand your point about the ASD/geek similarities I noted. Hopefully I did not come across as suggesting the two were that similar – more was trying to say that with the broad ASD spectrum, it strikes me that geeks exhibit a small subset of some ASD behavior. My own experience obviously cannot compare with yours – I do know a number of adult’s with Asperger’s but the only real experience I have with autism is with the children of a number of friends. I would have probably focused more exclusively on Asperger’s, but with the variety and scope of behaviors and the lack of any clear delineations in diagnoses, felt it was easier to just include all of ASD – perhaps my mistake. Even in my limited experience though, your line “Just remember, if you’ve seen one kid with autism, you’ve only seen one kid with autism” really hit home.

      And completely agree on what you noted about the number of places geek interaction takes place on line, freed from the restrictions of geography. Being 40, my own experience stretches back to the dial-up BBS and USENET days 🙂 However, in some almost indefinable way, I think Twitter is different. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the few online venues where we are “out” and mixing with non-geeks and those only slightly geeky, as well as finding so many geeks with interests different than our own. I think all of that goes a long way to making it feel much more like a community and less like a geek cloister. Many of the people I’ve met on Twitter and become friends with have interests similar to mine, but are often focused in completely different areas than I am. The focus then becomes much more on being generally geeky (my own defintion: “passion for something beyond reason”) and less on the specific areas of geekery 🙂

      Again, thanks so much for your comments – very much appreciated!

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