In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes, “Friendship (as the ancients saw) can be a school of virtue; but also (as they did not see) a school of vice. It is ambivalent. It makes good men better and bad men worse.” The same could be said of Twitter.
One thing I like about Twitter is the way it can intertwine friendships. Any time I follow someone new, I find myself startled when I don’t just start seeing their tweets, I start seeing their conversations. If I follow two people who interact with each other, I become privy to those exchanges. If I follow Ross Douthat, I not only find out what he is thinking, but I find out what he is thinking about what Alan Jacobs is thinking.
Lewis would have appreciated this aspect of Twitter because friendship, in his view, is not best enjoyed in isolated pairs. He writes, “By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.” Lewis illustrated this by describing the recent death of his friend Charles Williams. He not only mourned the loss of Williams, he also missed what Williams brought out in others, such as the way that J. R. R. Tolkien laughed at Williams’s jokes.
According to Lewis, sharing a mutual friend with another person didn’t mean you got less of that friend, but more. “Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend” (The Four Loves). In this respect, Twitter can be an enhancement to friendshipespecially a virtual friendshipby allowing others to bring out in another person what you cannot.
Yet with this glimpse into the intimacies and chummy circles of others comes a heightened version of another phenomenon that Lewis called “the Inner Ring.” Relationships consist of circles within circles, and we humans are powerfully motivated by a desire to be “on the inside.” Lewis writes
There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have despaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.
I confess that I’m susceptible to the pull of the Inner Ring. I knew this before I joined Twitter, but Twitter exacerbates the draw of exclusivity and makes it measurable. Thanks to Twitter, conversations between friends take place in public; little inside jokes are visible to the world, yet intelligible only to those on the inside.
Can you imagine watching the Inklings interact on Twitter? The thing is, I know C. S. Lewis wouldn’t have followed me, and I doubt he would have followed you. We would have been outside looking in at the happy few. Would this make us happy or envious?
For the most part, Lewis saw the existence of the Inner Ring as a fact of life, raw material that was neither good nor evil. Even so, he warned vehemently against the danger of letting the desire to be on the inside of the Inner Ring motivate one’s actions and words. When unsuccessful, the strivings of a want-to-be insider look foolish. When successful, they generally work by making someone else aware he is an outsider. Lewis asks
In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.
To be clear, Lewis exalts the pleasure to be found inside a circle of friends who share common interests. What he eschews is the seeking of insider status for its own sake.
The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. . . . And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside, that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product.
Many of the qualities that make a good friendship off Twitter make a good friendship on Twitter. As obvious as that sounds, it is something I need to be reminded of. Encouragement and genuine common interests do far more to bind people together than a clever retort or coded comment ever could.
“The Inner Ring” is included in the volume The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses