Not words but meanings
"Some people,” Virginia Woolf once wrote, “go to priests, others to poetry, I to my friends."
We think of our friends as those who are there, for us and with us, at the essential moments in life. But perhaps, for a moment, take the jewel of your closest friendships and turn them over to examine every facet. You might find that one of the joys of a true friendship is how it affirms the inessential and celebrates the unimportant.
If you have people with whom you can enjoy the silly, the meaningless, or just the utterly ordinary, those people are your friends. Some of them might agree to get you from the airport or bail you out of the lock-up at three in the morning, and maybe they are your closest and most treasured companions on the long and winding road of life. But that doesn’t mean those other fuck-offs and goofballs are worthless.
It’s the inessential quality of friendship, I think, that animates so much of the distress attending the slow-motion train-wreck of Twitter’s almost inevitable collapse.
Or maybe not so slow, given that Elon Musk, Genius, has told an all-hands meeting at Twitter overnight that the outlook is grim and bankruptcy is a live prospect.
“We're all reminiscing about our Twitter experiences like an end-of-school camp concert, and it's breaking my heart a little,” Marieke Hardy tweeted, of course, in the hours after Elon Musk achieved the purchase of the bird site. Or, to be perfectly honest, after he had it thrust upon him by US corporation law.
This isn’t a column about Twitter, though. We did that last week.
But I have been thinking about why so many people have been so heartsick at the change in ownership, an emotional register running from simple unease to full-blown fear and loathing.
In some cases, the fear is legit. Nobody wants Nazis in their feed, especially when they’ve experienced the real-world consequences of free speech absolutism. Ask anyone driven into hiding by online harassment how real the threat can be. Ask any woman about… well, honestly, fellas, just ask them about being female online.
For others, the worry is practical. A lot of people have learned to make their living from whatever presence they’ve crafted online. For some, Twitter is the only way to connect with their audience because Facebook long ago put a massive paywall between pages and users. If Twitter goes away, or it falls over because Elon sacked all the engineers who kept it running, they’re fucked.
But look beyond these concrete, instrumental concerns, and you’ll find an even sadder, more intimate passing. People are losing their friends.
There’s a school of not-much-thought that devalues online friendships, which all but denies their existence. If the connection isn’t based in the world of real things, this argument goes, it can’t truly exist.
But this is just a form of category error, mistaking one thing for another or insisting on the particular over the general – the particular being deep, long-lasting and material closeness over mere contextual friendliness.
What do I mean by contextual friendliness?
Most of your ‘real world’ friendships, I’m afraid. Example? If you’re a parent, think of the others you met on Planet Parenthood, many of whom you might have come to call ‘friends’ for a couple of years while your kids went through school together.
Most of those friendships don’t survive graduation day. Some do and go on for years. But most don’t.
You did have a relationship, even a friendship, with those guys, but it was more of a contextual friendliness than a significant or intense bonding, and without the context, it slowly fades like morning mist on a summer’s day. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just life.
But it’s also no more or less valuable than a friendship found in the context of an online connection.
Kate Leaver wrote beautifully about this a couple of weeks ago, telling the story of Ryan, who made headlines for inviting his three best mates to his wedding.
“And that’s newsworthy…why? Because he’d never met them in person before.”
They’d met playing Fifa on Xbox during lockdown. Thanks to the pando, they couldn’t meet up for beers in the custom of their people, so…
Instead of going for beers they made the natural progression to group WhatsApp chats and video calls.
The men talked about football for sure, but other things, too: like what it’s like living through the collective trauma of a global pandemic, perhaps? Or, I don’t know, favourite crisp flavours? Sneakers? Ryan Reynolds movies?
Point is, these guys provided each other with solace and bants through a hellish time, which in my humble opinion more than qualifies a person for a wedding invitation. No better place to have their first group selfie than on a wedding dance floor.
Kate points out that most of us find our friends young, at school or uni, “and then just sort of went ‘Yeah, they’ll do’ and kept hanging out with them forever despite growing evidence that we don’t even like them.”
Partly because making friends as a grown-up is hard.
This brings us back to the birdsite and Marieke Hardy’s long thread about friendship and loss. Like many writers, she was drawn to early Twitter by the pure joy of words and genius.
Words and genius, and a chance to “rush together with the smartest, funniest, most irreverent humans on the planet to barter opinions. Our own Algonquin.”
More than just friendliness then, and maybe even something more than just a contextual space in which to enjoy that friendliness.
In the olden days, when I blogged more, my blog felt like a club and the friends who met there often met in the real too, for beers and feeds and fellow feeling. Two weddings came from that blog, and many deep friendships continue. The hundreds of millions of people who have met in the weird, sometimes rowdy digital space of Twitter, which is often more public bar than a public square, have had that same experience at scale.
And it’s going.
They can feel it slipping away.
If Musk manages to destroy the platform and set fire to US $44B, it will be a story told and studied in business schools for the next century.
What won’t make it onto the curriculum is the unquantifiable loss.
The connections people feel have meaning for them, and the “language of friendship is not words but meanings,” as Henry David Thoreau reminds us.
Twitter had meaning.
The site could collapse spectacularly next week or rot over months, succumbing to digital corruption. Musk’s plan to bury the tweets of anybody who won’t pay him eight bucks a month is almost perfectly designed to sink the entire venture. Or perhaps the explosion of ‘verified’ scam accounts will destroy the company in the court system.
But in the end, the meaning of its loss will be felt most keenly in all those sundered bonds.
A little housekeeping, and not entirely unrelated to the day’s topic. I’ve long been a mad keen tweeter, an addict at times. But as I mentioned above, I also loved blogging long before I let that fall away in favour of 140-character-long brain farts.
ASB is sort of a blog but really more of a column. I’ve been thinking about making it a little more blog-like, maybe doing some link posts and shorter bits throughout the week. Honestly, it’s mostly to recreate the sense of community I used to have at my old blog, CheeseburgerGothic.
I do love reading the comments here. They’re usually funny and intelligent, and people are kind to each other. (They have to be because otherwise, I delete them).
So, I’ll ponder this a bit more and maybe, slowly, start dropping stuff in here at other times of the week. Not long written pieces. Just stuff in the news that catches my eye or amuses me.
And then there is my actual blog. CheeseburgerGothic, or simply - The Burger.
I am firing up the flux capacitor over there again. I started doing that recently because I wanted a place where my Twitter friends could stay in touch after Musk nuked them from orbit.
It’s another substack, but it’s totally free.
I’m trying to do a couple of quirky little bits and one more substantial piece a day over there. But more personal stuff, like this one, from Wednesday.
It was a hell of a place, Brisbane in the Before Times. Corrupt, backward and oppressive in a way that had nothing to do with the steam press humidity. It pushed down on you at all times, the sense of what was possible being crushed, slowly, between ham-fisted political coercion and cultural suffocation.
And yet, the underground music scene was kicking. A strange and contrary school of writers emerged. Unearthly subcultures took root in a fertile mulch fed by rot and genesis.
The boss-level culture, the dominant paradigm, was hugely dominant. It was white, masculine, possessive, and dangerous, really dangerous if you crossed it. But mostly, it was just dumb and self-satisfied. I remember being knocked back at the door of a beer garden with my Super Goth girlfriend because she too was way too Goth, and my shoes weren’t, I don’t know, ‘boaty’ enough or something. I remember looking in on the debauched blood-house frenzy inside and thinking, “Seriously? We’re the problem here?”
But it didn’t matter because we didn’t fit in. They sent us away.
I’d like it if you joined me over there. It’s a cosy little clubhouse, and entry is free for all. Plus, you get books.