Social Network as Family Substitute

Every time I read a post that says, “Goodnight tweeps. See you in the morning,” I wince. It seems unspeakably sad to think that people who are strangers, connected by 140 characters of communication, think it creates a family connection, and feel obligated to tell all those connections goodnight, to assure them they will be back the next day.

What would happen if they weren’t back the next day? Would anyone notice? If you follow 10,000 people—or even a fraction of that amount— and have as many follow you, how long does it take you to check up on them all in the morning? And is that really how you start your day–by seeing who checks in and who doesn’t?

Do the people who sign off so tenderly do the same for the people they share a house with? Or do they use Twitter (or Facebook)  because they are lonely? And if we can have a Second Life can we also have a pretend family?

There is no judgment here, just curiosity. When I was a teenager, we listened to the radio—to our favorite DJs, and to the songs they played on dedication hour. It was a community of strangers, much like Twitter, but it was run by one personality day after day, and the main purpose was to listen to popular music. We listened for dedications we had made and those that mentioned friends we saw every day at school.

The people on Twitter don’t know their thousands of contacts personally, so isn’t the connection an imaginary one? Like the imaginary friend my son had when he was five years old?

It’s a new meaning for social networking. It’s a new definition for social. And perhaps its connected with our willingness to give up privacy  for security.

Someone will point out that blog posts are no different, but I think they are. (Of course I think they are, I’m writing them.) But while I’ve gotten to know many of the people who leave comments, there are a handful of regular posters, and I don’t think they are my family. If no one read the blog, I’d still write it. I write it for writing practice, to think things through, to settle my logic.

But it’s an interesting thought: as we get drawn closer to strangers we will never meet, we still feel a huge need for connection in the most personal way.

–Quinn McDonald is a life and creativity coach as well as a writer and writing trainer.

24 thoughts on “Social Network as Family Substitute

  1. Where can I find a Twitter Manual or Twitter Guide? I’m sure it exists somewhere. After reading these comments my curiousity is sparked again and I may change my mind about Twitter.

      • Thank you. I just don’t want to give in to that feeling that I might be too old for Twitter.. 😉 It all seems so much, so fast, like riding along a forest trying to distinguish to the trees.

  2. Personally, I love Twitter. It has been and continues to be my number one source for reaching new readers and finding new people to appreciate.

    No, I don’t know all of my followers or all of the people I follow. I have, however, got to know several of them better than I ever would have otherwise.

    I’ve been able to meet some of the people I’ve encountered on Twitter in person, which is precisely one of the things I hope for when I interact there.

    They’re not my wife and children. They’re not even the friends with whom I share beers, cheers, and tears on a frequent basis. I understand the difference, but I still feel enriched by many of the people and things of interest I’ve discovered through Twitter.

    It’s just one piece of a larger puzzle, but, for me, it fits.

    • I agree with you, Ken–exactly on target. I love Twitter, Twitter has opened a bigger world for me, if find a lot of information on Twitter, but it’s not my spouse and children, and when I see people sending a goodnight message to their 1,200 followers, It makes me feel unspeakably sad that those strangers (and some friends) have substituted for family.

      • I’m a bit baffled by this. You wouldn’t walk out of a party without saying goodbye to anyone, would you? And it would be considered very rude to hang up on someone on the phone before saying goodbye. It is a very basic courtesy.

        So, if I’ve just spent an evening interacting with people on Twitter, I consider it good manners to end the conversation properly before logging off for the night. There is no difference, to my mind. It really has absolutely nothing to do with “substituting family”. Believe it or not, when I log off for the night I say goodnight to my Twitter followers *and* my family!

        Twitter is what you make of it, and people who engage with their followers get a lot more out of it than those whose feeds are constant, isolated streams of spam and self-promotion.

        • Thanks for leaving your opinion–it’s a big world and anyone’s well-reasoned opinion is welcome. In my mind, leaving a party with real people that you personally know might include saying goodbye to a few people, but not everyone. Ending a phone conversation with a personal acquaintance is hugely different from Twitter–which is a series of messages posted simultaneously to hundreds of people, many of whom may not be who you think they are, or whom you don’t know personally. Using your reasoning, it would be polite to shout goodnight when I leave a restaurant, movie theater or concert.

  3. I actually like Twitter, something I never thought I would say, but I like it because I can get a good sampling of photography articles, regional travel info, of newly posted photographs, and I like that you can ask questions and get quick answers. So I guess I’ve gotten into a niche where I use Twitter for specific purposes. I don’t see many “good mornings” and “sleep wells” but they are there. They make me a little uncomfortable. I don’t want to know what they’ve eaten for dinner or watched on TV either.

    Blogging is a totally different medium. More in depth. Even more personal in a way. Facebook I peruse a bit – I keep track of a few of my nieces and nephews on there, and I like that – but I have no idea how people can spend hours there every day.

    I’d rather read a book.

  4. I don’t use Twitter, but am on Facebook now. I know some people who really love Twitter and do use it to stay connected at deep levels. It doesn’t work for me.

  5. We cannot choose our family nor family-in-law but we can choose our internet connections.

    There is just no easy response to this post Quinn.

    Have a nice evening, and I know also know that your afternoon still has to begin..! ;-))

    • I respect different relationships–I have friends, like you, whom I have never met. But there is, at least in my mind, a difference between Twitter and blogs. Maybe it’s length, or depth, but signing off to 1,000 people every night as if one thought the others should know this level of your activity is surprising to me.

      • Twitter is way too fast for me and I am just not so interested in people’s very first thoughts/impulses/etcetera.
        I love the internet and I love weblogs and I see these as an enrichment for my life, an addition to my life and as more space to communicate.

        What I cannot live without is alone-time i.e. me-time!
        Twitter would act like a pinballmachine in my mind, a bit like ADD I suppose.

  6. For me, working with teams on multiple continents gives a different meaning to 24/7. Nobody expects anyone to be personally available 24/7, but we try to be flexible so nobody has to personally attend meetings in the middle of their night all the time. Just sometimes 🙂

    Cory Doctorow’s novel Eastern Standard Tribe has an interesting take on timezones and personal daytime/nighttime nowadays and in the possible future. Doctorow has a lot of insights into what life is becoming for some people. His books are published commercially, and he makes them freely available for downloading to anyone who wants them.

  7. It is so interesting to see how relationships are changing – I agree with the idea that there are so many new layers to them and even though I don’t “know” some of the people on twitter (they could be making everything up), I do miss some of them if I haven’t been on or seen them on in a while. And I don’t spend huge amounts of time there – just check in. But I’ve had some really interesting and fun encounters and stay in touch with a couple of people I’ve met there by email now, occasionally. I don’t do the “goodnight” thing – don’t imagine anyone really cares whether I’ve wished them a good night.
    I really liked how you set up the guidelines to give people choice for how they want to be contacted but keep your own boundaries. I can’t get used to the idea that anyone needs to be available 24/7 – unless you’ve accepted a job in emergency systems that requires that for certain situations. I find that expectation dehumanizing, as though we’re looking at others as robots.

    • That’s the word I was looking for—dehumanized. No one can be alert and available all the time. Particularly not if you are talking about writers, trainers and coaches (I’m those things). Not exactly emergency stuff. There seems to be a power line between “you have to be there for ME” and business availability. That’s another topic that is interesting to me–availability and power.

  8. We do a lot of research into this stuff in the (probably vain) attempt to try to keep up with the real world. It seems to show that people are creating relationships in different layers, and that they do care about their “digital connections”. This isn’t anything new, of course; there have always been differences between siblings, extended family, friends, coworkers, and repeated bounded encounters — the guy who sells you coffee every morning, or the clerk at the supermarket you see repeatedly enough to form a particular kind of relationship.

    In the digital world, the idea of “friending” people seems to create a connection — not a strong one, and not the same thing implied by the same word (“friend”) in the physical realm. But a relationship. And there are different layers of that as well. One of the things I work on is how your digital relationships are embodied in your mobile phone. There are people on your favorites list — you can get in touch with them with one tap or button press, but you can only have a certain number. Then there are people on your contact list, and some people organize those into groups. Of those people, you have different information about them — it appears that in general the closer the real-world relationship, the richer set of information you have about that person, including birthday, photo, phone number(s), and so on. That winnows down to people on your contact list that you have only an email or twitter address for; not even a phone number.

    It’s probably not surprising that people are very good at creating and dealing with these complexities.

    Interestingly enough, the question you asked — “would anyone notice if they didn’t come back the next day” — is one of the questions our researchers investigate. There isn’t a simple answer, but in general it appears that yes, people notice when people they’re linked to fail to appear, and depending on things like closeness of relationship (as measured by richness of data and/or questionnaire responses) and the digital context — that is, is it a Facebook, Twitter, etc. contact — people will take action from posting a question to quite a bit more.

    Digital relationships seem to run the gamut from imaginary friends to physical-world marriages. One of the things I try to keep reminding myself is to avoid the term “real world” — relationships maintained with digital media seem to be just as real and complicated as relationships maintained via physical means.

    • I find this fascinating. Layers, amount of information increasing as closeness increases. I work the other way. My family members have only phone numbers because I think I know their birthdays and children’s name. (Ummmm, notice the “think” word.) The checking in aspect boggles my mind, though.

  9. I fully agree. I also have a personal definition of the word ‘friend’, which includes people I really know personally, get together with, and care about (and who care about me). How can anyone possibly have hundreds, not to say thousands, of friends? I got roped into Facebook by a nice person whom I know only from Internet posts, who asked to be my friend on Facebook. Being old-fashioned, I accepted because it would be rude to do otherwise; I like this person (but she is not a close friend by my definition). I now feel rather overwhelmed, and really haven’t grasped Facebook, which seems to offer a set of values rather foreign to mine.

    As to the expression 24/7, I find it a horror. NEVER will I offer myself, my services, or anything else 24/7, nor will I expect anyone else too. OK, a friend (see above) may call me at any time, but that does not make me available 24/7, nor does it mean I can deal with that kind of communication for more than a short time. Whatever happened to privacy? Whatever happened to those quiet moments when we ruminate, dream, wool-gather, or do other inspirational things? Or even work?

    • Not to alarm you, but working is now done in teams, and younger workers enjoy working in spurts, at any hour. I have an hour after which I am not available for work, because I have allotted it for other things–notworking. That includes meals, sleeping, creative work or rejuvenation. For many, rejuvenation cannot happen alone, and meals are communal or eaten in a car. It’s a world I don’t function in well. I have a high need for privacy and alone time.

  10. I agree Quinn. I’ve chosen to only follow tweets that either link me to practical sites I use or ones that provide ‘daily spiritual thoughts for the day’ as my twitter page does @auntieracquel. The connection then is on a meaningful level rather than the physical & mundane.

    How right you are that we have no control or choice over what happens ‘tomorrow’ & if we are able to tweet or blog etc., hopefully we use the ‘control’ or choice that we have available to us, to communicate meaningfully rather than spout useless, inane verbage.

    I have chosen to read your blogs as it provides inspiration & practicality as well as linking with other like minded people – long may it continue!

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