Friday, November 20, 2009

Talking to strangers

Not me - I promise

Last night, in a swanky London restaurant, I had dinner with some colleagues and our company's lawyers. It was a pleasant evening; we were celebrating a successful deal; intelligent, interesting company, and surprisingly, we didn't talk about work. In fact, we talked about blogs.

Not just blogs, but Twitter and Facebook and social media in general. And their question was, why? Not only why I write a blog - though we'll come to that in a minute - but why is there such a demand to connect with strangers? Their premise was: communication between friends is one thing; talking to anyone and everyone is bordering on the weird.

Now it has to be said this was a typical lawyers' conversation - bright minds, but somewhat theoretical. None had ever read a blog, they were not on Twitter and their experience of Facebook came from their children or a 'friend.' My colleague admitted to being addicted to his Blackberry, and there were empathetic nods over the Cabernet Sauvignon. But aside from email, it was clear that social media had not penetrated the Magic Circle.

The first question was why write a blog at all? Because I enjoy it, I explained, and writing is important to me - when you come to think of it, why paint, or make models or play golf? But couldn't I write without posting it online - why the urge to share? Because publishing gives me an incentive to write more clearly, to care about the words.

Fair enough, but isn't it narcissistic to be writing for strangers? Is that so different to exhibiting paintings, or publishing a book? I replied. When we do those things, we invite people to take a look - to come and see what we have found - sharing our experience is part of the point.

And in practice I do know many of the people who read my blog. All my family read it, including my wife and my children - even Dylan looks in occasionally. Today I received a letter from my father-in-law, describing it as a 'splendid project' and listing his favourite posts. Friends and work colleagues read it too, though interestingly only Sara (who also blogs) leaves comments.

I wasn't getting off that easily. Writing for family and friends is one thing; a putative relationship with other bloggers is surely another? I could argue a few semantic points on this, but the general sentiment is a fair one. I had not envisaged this when I started blogging and yet I value the comments I receive; it gives me a kick that 'strangers' read what I have to say and are prepared to acknowledge it. More than that, I am prepared to return the favour.

Though in practice it's seldom a chore. As in 'real life', where people become friends because they have shared interests and values, I follow the blogs I like and skip those I don't. This is similar to joining a writing group or a cycling club - we look for like minds and shared interests - but in doing so, we understand the unspoken rule of contributing to a spirit of community.

So thanks to all of you who share your writing and comment on the bike shed. To my friends up north, Steve and Dan, Hadriana and Her on the Hill. From Wales: Maggie, Cait and the Celtic Heart. To those sharing life abroad: French Fancy, the Fly in the Web and Abe Lincoln. And nearer to home: Carol and Darren and Michelle at Veg Plotting. As well as all the others: the Zoo Archaeologist, Mrs OMG, Catherine, Sara, Jimmy Bastard and my favourite name of all, the PinkFairyGran - I wonder how those last two would get on together? Apologies to those I forgot to mention.

And so we come to social media - where blogging gives way to Twitter and Facebook - where it is less about writing and more overtly a means to connect. This is not for me, and a side of me empathises with last night's chatter. I find it hard to envisage how it works; twitter is too short and Facebook remains a mystery. But I recognise that others have different attitudes - and where those are shared, friendships (perhaps fellowships is a better word) will quickly form.

I am conscious too that businessmen and lawyers, dining in a London hotel, are not the best judge of these things.

Last Sunday I took Daniel to task for his casual attitude to Facebook invitations. Tell me how many friends you have, I demanded. About 150 was the answer. Then I want you to delete anyone you do not personally know! 'But I know them all,' he replied, '...not like you on your blog.'

I didn't argue. But you know, I think he's not quite right on that one.


  1. Quite simply, I blog because I need / love to write... and once I have written something it needs to be read... blogging is the perfect outlet. It's also a discipline in itself - to come up with a wide variety of subjects and not only making them interesting but also accessible to an outside unknown audience.... tha challenge and the sometimes challenging feedback is addictive.

  2. I agree with Steve on the reasons for blogging, though I wouldn't say I feel it 'needs' to be read. Having said that, if nobody leaves a comment, I begin to think 'why bother, nobody's interested' but maybe that has more to do with my seeking admiration/approval/congratulations? Who knows..... and isn't it strange, the younger generation's views of 'personal friends'? So different to ours. I wouldn't call anyone I exchange blog comments with, a friend. An acquaintance maybe, I only know what they tell me, what I glean from their comments, which isn't usually very deep and meaningful. But that doesn't the main I am happy for the lightness of this relationship with fellow bloggers, though there are the occasional ones who intrigue me and I wish I knew them better.

  3. For the first three years of my blog I received just a handful of comments. The thing is that I never began it in a 'look at me and my blog' kind of way. I wanted to document our new life in France and I liked the fact there would be a record of it in perpetuity and not in a notebook or journal that could be lost or torn. When I did begin getting comments it gave me a little filip of delight, then I began getting more and more and it was lovely - I felt I had connected with people and I now think of them as my friends - true friends that know so many of the innermost thoughts that my real life friends do not.

    I wouldn't discuss things like this with people like lawyers - they would never understand and, the thing is, if amongst this group there was a secret Tweeter or Facebooker, they would probably never own up to it.

    My Facebook friends are some bloggers, some family and some real life friends (although my closest friends are not on there - no, they're not lawyers). As for Twitter, in which I am a newbie, it is fun.

  4. I blog because I love to write and I do find the feedback you get from comments is a real spur to write more. I am on twitter and facebook too but that is more a toe in the water just to get a sense of how social media work. It is blogging that has become a part of my daily life.

  5. I was a lawyer and loved it because the whole thing to me was about communication....helping someone to get their point of view heard in a forum totally alien to them and, with a bit of luck, helping them to obtain reasonable treatment. Not criminal law, I hasten to add...I know that some people find it thrilling to mix with axe murderers, druggies and beaters up of old ladies, but I am not of their number.
    I started to blog to explain to friends why my view of France did not accord with what they were reading in the magazines and books about 'living the dream' and have, much to my delight,received kind, interesting and amusing comments from fellow bloggers whose work in turn has opened my mind and gives me very real pleasure.
    I have friends who use both Twitter and Facebook, but I don't think that the continual exchange suits gets in the way of reading a book, I suppose!

  6. I read this just over a week ago and it's been in my thoughts since then.

    I think of the people I 'meet' through blogging as just like any other people I meet anywhere else. You'll always meets loads, many of these evolve into colleagues or acquaintances and a tiny proportion will become firm friends.

    The latter group's probably the hardest because it's just much harder work with a computer. It takes ages to type things, you don't get the full emotions and body language behind what's being said and the conversation's one-sided, even though it's 2 way over time.

    However, it is possible to gain friends in this way, certainly through blogging, but I'm not so sure via social media like Twitter and Facebook. Via blogging may be more difficult in places like the States because of the distances involved, but it's certainly possible here in the UK.

  7. Crumbs I'm soooooo ignorant about these things. I've just found out about Tweetups, where Twitter users arrange to meet up.

    There's one which happens regularly in Southampton, that even has its own blog!

    I suppose the underlying message with what I've been saying is that perhaps it still needs the good old face to face meeting for these kind of things to stand the best chance of crossing through into what we would usually say is a real friendship.

    Looks like your son's re-defining that word though, I wonder if the next generation's doing that pretty much wholesale?

  8. What a great and thought provoking piece of writing! I arrived here tonight because of "Veg Plotting" and ended up on this post of yours from's the first time I have read words truly describing how I feel about blogging. Many thanks.

    I loved this especially:

    "Because publishing gives me an incentive to write more clearly, to care about the words".