(Written by Hannah Malone)
If you believe the picture painted by some politicians, we’re living in a Britain that has lost its sense of community. We don’t know our neighbours anymore, and we really don’t want to. We scuttle into our houses with our heads down in case one of them speaks to us. And once we’re safely in, we closet ourselves away in the safe, sterile bubble of the internet. We won’t talk to other people on public transport unless there is a bomb scare. Or snow. In fact, we no longer talk face to face if we can help it: we text, tweet and Facebook each other.
This image of a dysfunctional society is, of course, a huge generalisation. There are plenty of people who do know and like their neighbours, just as it’s true that some neighbours are probably best avoided at all costs. It’s also true that talking to people through applications like Twitter can provide something of a cushion in terms of actually connecting with others: after all, you don’t know who they are, and you can be safe in the knowledge that you never have to meet them. But some people choose to meet their fellow tweeters in real life.
I recently went to a twuddle, a meeting of fellow Tweeters in my home town, and not without some trepidation. Essentially, the twuddle is all about people finding a way to socialise better together both online and off: it’s the 21st-century equivalent of a pub. There’s also a daytime event, the tuttle* , which helps people find a way of working better together on and offline: perhaps a 21st-century version of a water-cooler.
As I neared the pub, I was gripped by an irrational fear that one of these strangers could be someone I recognised and disliked: an ex from long ago or someone who’d regularly elbowed me on the train. Casting a suspicious eye around the room, I tried to guess which group of people was the twuddle. Luckily, I was right first time. No darts stopped in mid-air, and no tumbleweeds cartwheeled across the pub. It was a bit like listening to The Archers on the radio for years then actually meeting the cast. You’re almost afraid that reality might shatter the preconceived images of people that you’ve formed in your head. There were a few surprises in terms of age, and even sex, but these were just normal, nice, friendly people. It was like finding a whole sub stratum of Tunbridge Wells that I never knew existed: why didn’t I recognise any of these people?
Having to introduce yourself by your Twitter username is a somewhat surreal experience and it was equally surreal to put faces to names. I’m just a beginner when it comes to the twuddle, but it has taken on a life of its own over the seven months it has been running, with local photowalk and cake bake competitions, quizzes, dinner parties and even curling on the cards.
Detractors of social media claim that applications like Twitter only serve to isolate us further from one another but gatherings like the twuddle show that it’s actually doing quite the opposite: far from keeping strangers apart, it’s bringing them together. At a time when social media users are being pilloried for cocooning themselves from the ‘real world’, Twitter is helping drive a movement to rediscover social contact and reconnect people within their own community.
There’s no doubt that social media is changing the way we interact with one another, and is creating many unexpected business and social benefits. As Twitter gatherings spring up all around the country, what they are really proving is that social media can be a tool to connect people, not to keep them apart.
* The name ‘tuttle’ comes from the original London-based ‘social media café, the Tuttle Club, so Tunbridge Wells + Tuttle = twuttle. The twuddle is the social of the twuttle, which is more business-oriented.