Usually, I work in a shed. Well, I say it’s a shed, but I suppose it’s a summer house. It has windows, chairs, and even a record player in the corner.
But a shed sounds like the sort of place where real work takes place so, for the sake of feeding my delusion that what I do each day has any intrinsic value, let us call it that.
I love my shed, with its deep red walls and views across the garden to the hedgerow, where birds nest and neighbourhood cats prowl.
It’s a tranquil place where I can gather what thoughts I have and scatter them on to the screen of my laptop.
There are good practical reasons for working here: there’s no rent, for one thing, and it’s quiet enough that I can muddle by without distraction. But the thing I like best about it is the fact that, once inside, I need never see another person until I emerge: hours pass by without the need for excruciating small-talk; I never have to pretend I know a single thing about football or that I’ve seen Game of Thrones.
I’m not, you see, much good with people. I try to be polite, in person, but I’m awkward with new folk. I say the wrong things, try too hard – or not hard enough – and, more often than not, come away from any first meeting with someone feeling a deep sense of embarrassment. Dear God, I think, I made an arse of myself. I’m not doing that again. And then I go to my shed and ruminate on all the idiotic things I’ve ever said or done. This is time-consuming: I’ve said and done a lot of idiotic things.
This tiresome neurosis has, down the years, meant my social life is a patchy business. I’ll be invited to a party, say, by a long-time chum and think “can I pretend there are childcare issues?” or “have I previously feigned illness to this person?” If there’s a way of avoiding meeting new people then I’m happy to explore it.
But, recently, I’ve found a way of overcoming this problem. For me, the social networking site Twitter is like a dating agency for finding new friends without having to go through the pain of a first meeting.
We hear a lot about online abuse, especially in Scotland where Twitter provides a forum for people on either side of our constitutional debate to call each other the most unspeakable things. The author JK Rowling was a recent victim of this sort of dreadfulness, with her support for the Labour Party in last week’s general election provoking many who disagreed with her to let her know about this in the crudest terms.
I get my own share of abuse but I’m a give-as-good-as-you-get sort and I’ll generally fire back until I get bored and hit the block button.
To focus on this darker side of Twitter, however, is to ignore the good things it has brought me: real friendships in the real world, with the most diverse range of people; people who, had it not been for social networking, I’d simply never have met.
Twitter helps make those first interactions so much easier. Without having to look someone in the eye, that crippling awkwardness fades away. It’s easier to be myself (or, maybe, the version of myself I’d most like to be).
I still see those people I’ve known for years, of course. But, thanks to Twitter, my social life is filled with new people.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at a book launch in Edinburgh, hearing an author who I’d only ever spoken with online, being interviewed by a singer who, again, came into my life via Twitter. Sitting beside me was a coffee shop manager, who felt like an old friend, despite this being our first in-the-flesh meeting.
A week later, I was dining with a best-selling novelist and a woman who works in box offices and can get tickets for any show you might fancy. These chums would never have crossed my path had it not been for my tendency to sit online and make crappy jokes about politicians. A little over a week ago, I was in a box in the Royal Albert Hall, watching my favourite singer Nick Cave, in the company of half a dozen people who I’d met for the first time just half an hour before. It felt like I was among old friends because, thanks to Twitter, I (sort of) already knew them, already knew we’d get on, already felt relaxed enough that I wouldn’t make a thwocking great fool of myself. The fancy seats, I should add, came thanks to a pal who I had to meet painfully, the old-fashioned way, a dozen or so years ago.
So Twitter has changed my social life completely. It has brought into my life the most extraordinary mix of new people: stand-up comedians, research scientists, lawyers, concert promoters, teachers, waiters.
I’ve even got up to no good with the manager of a famous rock band after we bonded online over a love of Buddy Holly and constitutional politics.
And after all these japes, there’s the shed again. I return to my safe place and get on with the business of being antisocial and awkward. I look across the lawn and rattle on the window to scare a tom cat away from a fledgling then crack open another can of Red Bull and try to think of something new to say about Nicola Sturgeon or Jim Murphy.
When I’m done working, I open up Twitter again. I find out what my new friends are saying. I read other people’s feeds, spot someone interesting and follow them. Who knows, maybe they’ll end up being pals in the real world.