Playing with Strangers
Lessons from a weird Town Square
It’s hard to know right now if Twitter will last another 6 hours, or another 60 years. The truth seems to be that it might collapse briefly, then be revived as a skeletal version of itself with Elon Musk as an incompetent Dr. Frankenstein, but who knows. What’s certain is that millions of people think it’s on the brink, and are contemplating the possibly of its death. When news broke that most Twitter employees had quit, jokes erupted, as you would expect, but they were punctuated by beautiful, nostalgic declarations of all the good that unfolded across the platform over the years.
People talked about how Twitter expanded access to writing and journalism and provided folks with a way to get their work out. They talked about how great organizations had received immense support and found people to contribute to their campaigns and causes. They talked about how Twitter had helped folks escape form abusive relationships and violent homes and dangerous situations. The outpouring of love for the crowd funding, for the communities found and created, and for the news and information and knowledge that had been spread both warmed the heart and broke it; the unrelenting unfairness that this could all come crumbling down because of one man was everywhere. People have made careers, ended careers, and found love and friendship and comradeship on Twitter. Even though on any given day prior to the Musk takeover you could find a couple thousand people calling Twitter a hellsite, the imminent end led us to confess all of what was and hopefully will continue to be beautiful about it.
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But if it doesn’t last I hope we take at least two things with us. The first is contact. As Twitter was collectively mourning itself I wrote a little bit about what Samuel R. Delany calls “contact vs. networking” in his wonderful book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Amidst the all science-fiction in Delany’s catalogue is this immensely insightful work of non-fiction, where he talks about how New York City, and Times Square in particular, used to have a whole bunch of sex theaters. Porn would play on the screens, men would come to the theaters, and fairly often they would have sex with strangers. Some of these encounters would be a one-offs, while others took place with men who would become Delany’s acquaintances, and others friends, or lovers. As he zooms out he examines how all of these encounters, wherever they may have led, were only possible because of the random “contact” that occurred in these theaters. The chance collision with someone you didn’t plan to meet, had no connection to, and was not in your network in any way.
However, as the city changed and developers wanted to tear down the sex theaters and shops around Times Square and elsewhere, a major source of contact for gay men disappeared. During the ‘80s and ‘90s this also happened to queer city kids who were no longer able to party on the Westside piers, and to working class people in general as public space got eaten up, or closed off. Delany says that these changes led to more and more “networking,” rather than contact. People were forced to hang out with established friend groups, or work circles, or join formal organizations and rec leagues. Fewer and fewer people met randomly, more people started wearing headphones and they spoke less to people on the street as contact slowly declined. Of course chance encounters still happen, they just happen less often. And in a lot of the United States, outside New York, they happened less to begin with and have gone down from there.
But on Twitter, contact has thrived. Yes we network, yes we find people we know or like and follow them and see their updates. But far more than on other social media apps we also see tons of random people. We see all the weirdos our network retweets, we see trending topics and the random people tweeting about Trump or baseball or whether or not it’s okay to cook food for your neighbors, and in this process tons of smart and funny and awful content crosses our screens and minds. A lot of this random contact can turn into relationships, friendships, or professional connections. A lot of it can also turn into mutes and blocks and regrets, but so it goes. All told, millions of people have experienced the joy of contact, the joy of spontaneously encountering information you never planned to encounter, and of meeting people who were never and would never be in your network, if not for Twitter. And wherever we go, I hope we take the joy of contact with us.
The other great joy of Twitter, for me, is play. A friend recently sent a David Graeber article from 2014 on the subject of play. It’s much more in-depth and nuanced than this short piece, but as I read it the thought crossed my mind that in many ways Twitter is a place of play. Adults playing around with silly memes and micro-cultures that emerge in strange pockets of Twitter and just jokes about whatever comes up that day. There’s also vitriol and maybe too much seriousness, but the ethos of the site is mostly one of banter, word play. Much like contact, play feels increasingly absent from life. A lot of those public spaces closed off by privatization, or policing, or car culture are places of play. But even bigger than that our culture has decided that adults shouldn’t really play. We can have fun, of course, but in scheduled ways. In networked and planned and thought out ways. And that’s not what play is. Play is spontaneous and goofy and although it may develop rules, like to a game, in true play those rules are subject to change. And we’re not a society that enjoys subjecting rules to change. Or at least the power structure is not, and if one thing has trickled down around here it’s that ethos of conformity to power structures and obedience to authority.
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I hope to do another essay soon on how Musk fans embody this love of power, this faith in the rich and powerful, and how that intersects with the U.S. right shifting from at least claiming libertarianism to moving rapidly into fascism, but for now I’ll keep it on Twitter and it’s joys. Twitter has been a space of play, a place of random contact that built beautiful relationships and helped a lot of people learn and grow in various ways. And whatever happens next I hope we take those things with us. We can take them to our future social media apps and websites to some degree, but more than anything I hope we take it out into the world. I hope we build physical spaces in our communities for play, for contact with strangers who become friends. I hope we bring these ideas into our friend groups and schools and community centers. I hope we embrace play, and contact, and all the potential that they hold. If we do it right we might find ourselves breaking some of the monotony of life, and breaking free from some of the structures that have imposed that monotony on us, draining the color and life force from us to store in offshore bank accounts. I hope we embrace play, and spontaneity, and bring more color back to life, no matter what happens next.
P.S. I won’t be leaving Twitter till the ship goes down. It’s been a real blessing for me both professionally and in terms of meeting a lot of wonderful people. But I’ll also be over here more, and I hope to stay connect with you no matter what comes next. Have a beautiful weekend, and touch some grass. - Josh
Hi Josh - just want to say how startling I found this essay - it focused a number of things for me, in particular, the difference between contact and networking. Plus, the reference to Samuel R. Delany, whose Dhalgren I read many years ago, and loved, but whom I haven't read since - that was a delight. I've followed you on Twitter for some months - and now I'm glad you've got a substack going. I suppose we can consider that one of the good things coming out of the Twitter crash.
Connecting that classic Graeber article with Delaney sparked some stuff in my brain. THANKS!