Geeks Vs Loneliness: Only Connect

In which Penny shares the joy of pylons...

Hello and welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our small corner of the site where we talk life, the universe – and pylons. Today the wonderful Penny Blackburn explains how the internet keeps her in touch with her interests and a whole lot more.

About a year ago I was walking through my local park, where I saw a saddening scene. A boy of about 4 or 5 kept excitedly calling his mum over to see what was in the stream, but she just stared intently at her phone. I tried to think that maybe she had a family member in hospital and was getting news, but the realist in me knows she was more likely checking Facebook. In the end, her little lad stopped calling and just gazed into the stream alone.

It’s a common criticism of ‘the internet’ – and specifically the social media it enables – that it isolates us. There is a perception that we are all so busy living ‘imaginary’ lives that we become distant from the people around us in real life, and admittedly it’s not unusual to see a group of people in the pub all looking studiously at their phones and ignoring each other. I’m sure that scene in the park will keep happening and it will be no less distressing every time.

So why am I about to launch into a defence of social media?

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Well firstly, there’s the old chestnut: it connects us to people who are geographically distant to us. My own connections include close family in Devon (I’m in Newcastle upon Tyne) and good friends in the States. But anyone with friends or family more than a couple of hours away will know how great it is seeing those people’s photos and posts about their daily lives, letting us know what they’re up to – even though we might not see them very often.

Then there’s the wonderful way that the internet brings the world to you. Those people who complain about the internet isolating us forget that some of us might be isolated to start with. I’m a single person living on my own and because I generally have a busy social life, people simply don’t realise that I can go whole days or a weekend without speaking to an actual person – except maybe for the checkout staff at the supermarket or an odd word from a neighbour.

Yet I might be in the middle of half a dozen or more conversations online. Some funny, some earnest, some sad, some celebratory. I can be chatting to ‘real world’ friends or with people who I’ve never actually met, but who have become friends through our contact on social media. Some take place over minutes, some over days, and all of them make me feel connected to others. People share some very personal stuff online and it’s clear that it can be a useful part of positive mental health for many. I have to wonder how low I would be without those conversations.

Another thing I love about social media is that it can cater for specialist interests. Now before you start thinking of saucy books locked in Victorian libraries, that’s not quite what I mean. I’m thinking of the sort of groups you find on Facebook which are dedicated to the appreciation of something quite specific which you either ‘get’ or you don’t.

Okay, okay. Yes. I’m talking about groups like the Pylon Appreciation Society …

Now before I go any further I must declare that this is not the only specialist group that I’m a member of. I’m also in the Cooling Tower Appreciation Society, the Water Tower Appreciation Society and – my first and true love – the Emley Moor Mast Appreciation Society. Plus I’m a follower of and occasional contributor to the World Bollard Society on Twitter. It turns out I really like industrial structures.

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But the Pylon Appreciation Society really highlights just how well the internet brings us together. There are over four thousand members and they hail from around the world. Pictures have been posted of pylons all over the UK, from USA, Canada, New Zealand, Syria, Germany, Azerbaijan, Japan, Denmark … lots of places. And it doesn’t matter if – like me – you can’t tell your L6s from your PL16s from your D60s. Everyone is welcome as long as they like pylons.

We even have a motto. It’s ‘Peace and Pylons”. How lovely is that?

So the internet has provided this space where we can all get together in our little pylon-based bubble and share our photos or videos, info on pylon themed goodies and anything else pylon related. That in itself is fantastic – we would never have made this connection in real life, it just wouldn’t have happened. And of course, whatever your own odd interests are I bet there’s a group you can join – if not just start your own!

So I could stop there and feel I’d made a fair case for the internet as being generally an all-round good thing and we could all go off and check Twitter and say no more. Except… except…

It doesn’t stop there. One of our members, a young man who has a very keen fascination with all-things-pylon, posted recently. Not a picture or a video but just a ‘thank you’. He said that his family had known for a long time about his intense interest, but that being in the group ‘really helped me boost my confidence about showing my interest in pylons… I think everyone now knows and no one seems to have a problem with it as people accept me for who I am.’ So being in the online group has helped him to be more confident and accepted in the real world. I don’t think that’s bad going for something which supposedly distances people.

I work with a group of young adults with autism and Asperger’s. A few weeks into their course I asked them what they liked about studying with us. I expected they would like things such as the chill-out room, the support staff and being treated as an adult. Maybe the pool table and the goldfish. One of them took me by surprise with the words ‘I just feel so accepted and I’ve never had that before’ and all the others nodded their heads and said they felt that too. I wrote his response on the whiteboard and found I was doing some rather hard swallowing before I was able to reply. Being accepted is such a basic human need that he shouldn’t have even had to think about it. I’ve chatted with them about the internet and those young people all feel that it’s given them a safe space to share their absorption about the specific topics they are into.

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We’re well aware that the internet can be a cruel place – online bullying is vicious and pervasive and sours the experience for many. But as a chance to connect and be accepted, it’s an amazing tool as well. It gives us the means to find the people like us, the people who share our interests – however oddball. For me, that positive outweighs the negatives.

So to you all: Peace and [insert name of own quirky interest here].