An amphibian is no stranger to art

Here I am, hashing out a little revelation I’ve just had. Have you ever felt left out? Have you ever left anyone else out? Of course you have.

I tend to follow people on Twitter who are loquacious, personal in tone, and interesting thinkers. Many of them are well-known (writers, academics, etc) and many of them know each other, and most of them don’t follow me. Being all of the things I mentioned (loquacious, interesting, &c.) and being acquainted with each other, they often carry on fascinating conversations with each other1 on Twitter, right in front of everyone, which is wonderful.

The problem — which I’ve only in the last week or so realized is a problem — begins when the publicness of the conversations, and my interest in the discussion, lure me into thinking I am free to join in and contribute.

Not that there’s anything stopping me from doing so. These fine people are talking out in public, so they must get some juice out of knowing others can hear them; and Twitter’s mechanics explicitly allow me to insert myself into the conversation with replies and @-mentions. But very often — at least when I do it — it goes nowhere; I am left with the weird feeling of being left out cold. I felt I had something helpful to add and a valid context for participating; so getting no response feels especially disappointing.

That inexplicable left-out feeling always results when there is asymmetric interest, meaning I’m really a lot more interested in them than they are in me. People who have symmetric interest in each other form groups whose boundaries are subtle, hard to pinpoint, and difficult to penetrate. C. S. Lewis talks about this in The Inner Ring (emphases mine):

“In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. A general is always superior to a colonel, and a colonel to a captain. The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organised secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it.

In practice, knowing whether you’re “in or out” is surprisingly tricky even in non-virtual settings, where physical gathering or dress can enforce the Ring’s unofficial divisions and provide cues of some sort. But digital fora — and Twitter in particular — make it even harder to really know whether you are in or out, because Twitter’s “little red book” is so democratic. There is no hierarchy from which you might glean social cues; everyone is in the same public “space” and presents the same. Anyone can speak to anyone and be reasonably sure that the person on the other end will at least notice. We’re all just hanging out together! Except, because of our Rings, we’re actually not.

And, though I have, at times, been on the Very Badly Losing End of this dynamic, I’m keenly aware that I’ve been on the other side too — that I myself have frozen others out, whether or not I intended them to feel that way. The problem of asymmetric interest has always been a hard one, for me, probably for everyone. How do you handle it when someone wants much, much more interest from you than you really have for them? If someone thinks you would be great friends, but you find them annoying, is that a character flaw on your part? Should you really just decide to reciprocate, to care? Are we even capable of deciding to do that sincerely? It reminds me of this snippet from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:

“‘I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral,’ Smiley went on, more lightly. ‘Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things.’”

I think this is deeply true, and that it shows us how to adjust our expectations of ourselves, and of others. My better instincts tell me that it’s no good pushing into a Ring, that simply telling ourselves we all ought to be more inclusive wouldn’t solve anything. In the end, nothing good can come of telling people to act in opposition to an immutable fact, especially an immutable fact about their own natures — in this case, the fact that we simply do not have the ability to really care about more than a few dozen things and people at a time.

That might sound cynical, but it isn’t — I feel no disappointment when I express it, no sense that it should be better. I mean to be as big towards others as my heart will let me; and when others don’t easily find room for me, to be content to listen and observe.

  1. Note that I’m specifically talking about public Twitter conversations between people who follow and know each other, and are maybe in some loose sense colleagues; I’m not talking about cases where they’re thinking aloud and clearly open to input from pretty much anyone.