December 7: Community. Where have you discovered community, online or otherwise, in 2010? What community would you like to join, create or more deeply connect with in 2011?
An interesting thing happened this past year. Facebook was replaced as my go-to social site by Twitter. I am still on Facebook, but I don’t feel the insane need to regularly check in, and to be perfectly honest, if it went away, nothing would change for me. My life (events, friends, entertainment) is not set up on Facebook.
If you’re not on Twitter or have no idea what it is, here’s the link to Wikipedia.The simple version: it is kind of like the text message of the internet. The Wiki article is a pretty decent analysis of Twitter and it’s history and usage.
There are two really interesting points from that Wiki link: 1) Pointless babble and conversational tweets are the bulk of tweets (whole study by Pear Analytics here) and 2) the demographics of who is using Twitter are extremely interesting to me. Unlike My Space which is essentially a high school locker full of crap with the odd musician thrown in there, and Facebook which to me is just a giant myriad of privacy settings, complicated multi-generational communities, intrusive alerts and ever changing interfaces, Twitter is “mainly used by older adults who might not have used other social sites before Twitter”. More women than men use Twitter, and they state that about 5% of all users generate 75% of content.
I’ve been a member of Twitter since November 16th, 2008. I can’t tell you what my first tweet was – Twitter only has the ability (currently) to display the last 3200 tweets or so, and as of this moment, my tweets are just a shade over 5000. I would say a great deal of my tweets are conversational. Granted, I often tweet things that fall more into the “pointless babble” (for example, “Chocolate dipped shortbread FTW!”) but generally I am tweeting it because I am seeking conversation from the online Twitter community I have developed – whether it’s commiseration, advice, or hoping someone laughs (or is jealous of my cookies). In response to the Pear Analytics study I noted above, Danah Boyd posted this which essentially says that “pointless babble” is an inaccurate label; a more appropriate one, she says, is “social grooming” and/or “peripheral awareness”. People “want to know what the people around them are thinking and doing and feeling, even when co-presence isnâ€™t viable”.
While all of the changes to Facebook over this past year has made me question its trustworthiness, usefulness, and place in my personal community, I have found that Twitter’s very nature (140 characters: essentially, my parts of a conversation) has actually had a deep and profound impact on my sense of community online, and even moreso, my sense of community in real life, in my hometown.
On Twitter you use something called a “hashtag”, which means you add a pound symbol (or, for some of you, a number sign) before a word or string of words and that makes it searchable. Here is a great simple explanation. I regularly use this hashtag on tweets that contain something specific to my hometown: #newwest. That way if someone is searching for things about New Westminster, they can find it with relative ease. We don’t use the long version of New Westminster – in an arena of 140 characters, choosing #newwest (8 characters and already a well used shortened version of the city’s name) over #newwestminster (15 characters) seems a character-saving no-brainer.
Sidenote: Entertainingly, there is a western United States hip hop community that uses the same hashtag, and so it’s been a bit of war over which group lays claim to the hastag by frequency of usage. Andrew Fleming at the Record (@flematic) wrote a piece breaking this whole thing down.
While I do write for a local blog and I do manage the local farmers market – both of which plug me into a community already – it has been Twitter that has proved the most fruitful. By using the #newwest hashtag, I have developed friendships online and in real life (as in: I invite these people to my home and confide things in them and loan them things and give them Christmas cards and eat meals with them and have too much wine with them). There are currently no less than a dozen people I consider to be important parts of my real-life social structure that I have met simply from Twitter. Seriously.
And that, my friends, is where I have discovered community.