Is social media bringing us closer together or pushing us further apart? A new exhibition by photographer Chris Floyd delivers some good news.
Technology is undoubtedly changing the way we conduct our relationships. A text I received from an old friend the other day read, "Hi Stranger, be good to catch up soon x." Way back when, she would have just called. Mostly we're staying in touch online these days, but a common criticism of social media is that it has only exacerbated our alienation from each other. When Simon Amstell jibed Lily Allen with "you've got 100,000 friends on Myspace (remember that?) but are they real friends that you can touch?" It probably provoked a lot of hesitant laughter around the country.
The photographer Chris Floyd found something positive emerged in his life thanks to one form of social media. Twitter provided him with a new social aspect to his working day, replacing the one that he had lost during the transformation of his work brought on by technological advances. Instead of just communicating with his 'new friends' via his keyboard, he set out to meet them, put faces to names and find out how they felt about Twitter too. It was in this way that 140 Characters, a photographic project borne out of a lean time for Chris professionally, resulted in an exhibition showing at the Host gallery in London.
"In July 2010 I began photographing people that I follow on Twitter. The idea for this came at a moment when I realised I had not seen or spoken to any of my best half-a-dozen real and actual friends for over a month. Some of those people on Twitter I communicate with several times a week, in bursts of 140 characters or less, and yet I had never met any of them." The social aspect of Chris' working life as a photographer had evaporated with the advent of digital.
There was no more taking his portfolio to businesses, no meetings discussing a brief for a project, no more hanging around the lab talking to other snappers while waiting to see contact sheets or prints. These days, a photographer's portfolio is his website, a brief is an email and photographs emerge via download.
Twitter has plugged the hole in his social life, says Chris, "in the sense that it has created an opportunity for me to talk to people on a daily basis while I'm at work. What constitutes me being at work is vast swathes of time during a week, where I'm sat alone at a computer for hours and hours and hours." Photographing the people he connected with on Twitter was born out of nosiness. "I wanted to see what all these people that I had begun to 'talk to' were like - I needed to meet them." They all had an opinion about Twitter, but a common thread that runs through all of them (you can read them at http://100fortycharacters.wordpress.com/) is how much of a significant effect it has had on their lives.
Quite a lot of them write about loneliness and how Twitter has helped to alleviate that. Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted, remarks on the meritocracy of Twitter. A lot of people are on there for the humour. One of the people most adept at this, journalist Caitlin Moran, describes the site as being "like an office staffed only by people you've hand-picked to be work-mates." "'A huge, endless free-flowing conversation with lots of witty, interesting people" is how another devotee describes it. The immediacy of news and information is another pull for some.
A common observation is that "people let go more on Twitter." The necessary brevity of the medium tends to show people at their most blunt - comments have to be broadcast unqualified. Unlike an interview with someone you might read in a magazine, it's often possible to get a good feeling for the personality behind the face as you see that person in a raw, uncensored form. As Chris puts it, "over a sustained period of time you are always going to betray yourself. Layer by layer you will reveal who you are and this will be an ongoing, revelatory process." You can be so much yourself or alternatively, I suspect, reinvent yourself completely. I'm sure that some of the funniest and coolest people on Twitter might be hopelessly socially inept and inarticulate if you got to meet them at a party.
It's at this point that I should confess that I'm one of the 140. At the time Chris put out a request on Twitter for his "Portwit" project I was struggling to get freelance work. I'd never had my portrait done by a pro and I was bored and eager for a new experience. We chatted for 20 minutes or so while I was in front of the camera, Chris pulling the trigger every now and then when he saw something he liked.
Looking at the resulting collection of 140 portraits, the marvellous variety of people is revealed. Not only our different shapes and sizes but our moods that change so much in a day. Some of the people in front of Chris' camera were obviously a bit anxious about it, others seem confident and happy. Others were playing with their kids, some of them were flicking v-signs and a bit scowly. Looking through the faces, you can see boredom, petulance, pride, ambivalence, provocation and hilarity. It's just like we all are in real life, in other words.
140 Characters is showing at the Host Gallery, 1 Honduras St, EC1Y 0TH until 17th November. 020 7253 2752 http://www.hostgallery.co.uk/
Follow Lee Mannion on Twitter: www.twitter.com/leemannion