In January of 2008, I signed up for Twitter with my first Twitter handle – @thedangillis – after a conversation with my good friend Dr. Beth. She convinced me that it would be a great platform to communicate with and learn from people around the world. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical of its ability to create meaningful conversation.
In the eleven plus years since I first joined, I’ve come to appreciate its power and potential. As a testament to this, I have created and/or managed more than ten different twitter handles and tweeted more than 72 thousand times. And Twitter has allowed me to meet – both virtually and in real life – so many incredible people; innovators, thinkers, revolutionaries, and change makers. It has opened my eyes to problems around the world, some unique to particular locations, others that seem to transcend geography. It has also given me a glimpse into the power of a collective, and the good things that can be accomplished if we focus our energies on making our community – our world – a little bit better than it currently is.
Sadly, something has changed. Twitter is not what it once used to be.
I’m sure this comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone, what with the creation of bots, the spread of misinformation, the lack of listening, the name-calling, the utter failure of communication, and unsurprisingly, the festering of anger and hatred that have given birth to and a platform for trolls.
Perhaps this is my version of being the old man on his front porch lamenting the changes around him that he doesn’t understand, but I miss the old Twitter. I miss the community that it used to be. I miss the positivity that it created. Mostly, I miss the positive change that it could (and did) bring to the community.
Shortly after joining Twitter, I somehow found myself connected to a group of people who live in Guelph. While much of our online conversation consisted of random thoughts and musings on life, there were also numerous conversations that focused on problems – both large and small – in our own community. This included conversations pertaining to the lack of quality food at the food bank, to businesses downtown suffering because of the ongoing construction of our (at the time) new city hall, to homelessness, to children going to school without breakfast, and more. And while we all commented on or lamented these issues, there was a growing sense (at least from my point of view) that we might be able to do something about them if we simply got off of our butts and used our collective resources to make meaningful change.
I think the catalyst was when someone decided that this weird group of misfits who were chatting online on a regular basis needed to meet in person. I don’t recall who decided to make this a thing, but within hours there were upwards of thirty people who decided that meeting for lunch was absolutely something we should do. None of us had any major expectations for the event, and I’m sure most of us went into it with a bit of trepidation. Whatever the case, that first meeting – which became a monthly event known as #LunchUpGuelph – was the launch pad for a series of community events and groups that helped describe for me the power of community, and moreover, the power of Twitter.
For me, the exciting part of #LunchUpGuelph was meeting people who I don’t know I would have had the chance to meet in any other circumstance. Almost all came from backgrounds that were outside of the typical academic bubble that I found myself inside of on a day-to-day basis. That’s not to say that they weren’t academic or nerdy in some way – but they weren’t in my immediate academic math/stats/computer science bubble. What I do know is that I met some incredibly intelligent, passionate, and engaged citizens, and ultimately, a group of people who would become some of the most important people in my life (and whom I rely on to this day to challenge me, and to ground me); a creative band of nerds who have become my extended family.
While our first #LunchUpGuelph didn’t immediately result in any concrete actions (at least for me), it left me inspired and with a sense of growing purpose. And I think this was the case with everyone because #LunchUpGuelph became a monthly event. The organizers would randomly select a restaurant in town that we would descend upon, and then we would spend our time sharing a meal, talking about everything and nothing, and plotting – so much plotting.
Before long, the people who attended #LunchUpGuelph began to push for a series of local events and initiatives. I’m not sure of the exact timeline, but the collection of hearts and minds that overlapped at our monthly events gave birth to IgniteGuelph, Secret Santa Guelph, Farm To Fork, MayHealth, GoodWorks, and more. Some of these events/initiatives were designed to inspire the community by showcasing community excellence. Some of these events/initiatives were designed to bring attention to broad social challenges while working to alleviate their symptoms. Some helped raise thousands and thousands of dollars to help those in our community who were somehow sidelined or marginalized. Some were simply just for fun. Whatever the case, I think it safe to say that these events and initiatives engaged and inspired people well beyond the list of people who attended #LunchUpGuelph. And amazingly, they were all carried out with the efforts of volunteers and people who simply cared and took the time to get off of their butts to do something.
All of this, borne of a community that was connected and sustained by Twitter.
That was the Twitter I knew and loved. And I know it’s the Twitter that still exists underneath much of the negativity that pervades the social platform that gave so many of us a sense of community and belonging.
A perfect local example of the good that can (and still does) come from Twitter is evident from Dr. David Whiteside’s Twitter account. Beyond his continuous stream of tweets that seem intent on making people feel better about themselves, he publishes a weekly thread known as “Mondays are tough, so here are a bunch of cute animal pics”. My personal favourite, however, is his weekly #ThankfulThursday series, where he challenges followers to reflect and post on three things for which they are grateful from the previous week. It’s a simple challenge to add gratitude to our weekly (and daily) lives, and it’s incredibly inspiring and uplifting to read the comments of the people who choose to respond. It is the remedy for much of what ails the Twitter of today.
Beyond this, and between much of the shouting and anger that is violently thrown into the ether, are Twitter accounts that are pure and wholesome and entirely perfect. As a case in point, I offer the following accounts which I recommend you follow immediately if you aren’t already doing so: @Calvinn_Hobbes, @dog_feelings, and @MisterRogersSay. They make me smile, they make me think, and they make me realize that the world isn’t completely awful, despite how much the negativity is amplified.
These accounts (and many others) remind me of the good Twitter; the Twitter that connected people and helped communities; the Twitter that facilitated communication and understanding by providing a platform to talk to people from different walks of life and from all over the world. I still believe it exists. I still believe it’s worth fighting for.
Perhaps this is simply me walking down a path through my own naiveté. Perhaps I’m grasping at a reality that no longer exists. Perhaps, as I mentioned before, I’m simply an old man shouting from my front porch about the way things used to be. But I hope that isn’t the case, because I’ve seen the good that can come from a community bonded by Twitter. And it’s awesome, if we want it to be.