Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)
Alternate InternetAlternate InternetThis week, we look at the ways the internet could have been—and could be—different.

Browsing the internet generally feels exhausting for me. Mostly, it’s because everything is bad. The websites I once visited for “fun” are now saturated with reminders of society’s collapse, brands making painful jokes, lies, outrage, and actual Nazis. I only visit these websites out of habit and poor impulse control.

But I’ve recently joined a welcoming community on the internet that doesn’t drain me of my joy and energy. It’s a place where people with similar interests can connect, share interests and experiences, and foster friendships despite distances—the things social media sites always claim they do and always seem to fail miserably at. I’m talking about Bird Twitter.

On its surface, Bird Twitter is just Twitter users who tweet about birds. Many share pictures that they’ve taken, post weird bird facts, or recall sightings of special birds in real life or on TV shows. Some people make jokes about the silliest bird names—have you ever heard of the southern screamer? Ornithologists join in with interesting findings like how band-rumped storm-petrels might be split into several similar-looking species. Writers post odd stories like the one about the gulls that fell into vats of curry. A lot of it is just friends helping friends identify the species of bird that they saw in the field (or commiserating with blown identifications).

But it’s more than that. I’ve made plenty of actual real-life friends just from taking part in Bird Twitter, people I now hang out with every weekend and people who have shown me around their city when I’ve come to visit, like in Portland, Maine this past winter, where a Bird Twitter friend met up with my partner and I to look for razorbills, black guillemots, and harlequin ducks on the Atlantic coast. I’ve been able to follow along with other people’s birding exploits, like when my Bird Twitter friends started sharing the lists of an Australian birder visiting the United States just to look at the gulls.

I’ve found a place to clear my head when I’m stressed by my impending deadlines or when a troll emails me a death threat. It’s what I wish the internet could always be.

Obviously, you should use social media to discuss things you like and follow people with similar interests. But this is harder than it sounds. The corporate infrastructure of the internet has replaced internet communities. Social media encourages us to lump our interests and friends into one place, mixing our hobbies with our professional lives, and has made me feel like I can never really end my workday so long as I’m using the internet. It shows us things the things we enjoy alongside the things that upset us, sometimes on purpose. The content we’re supposed to enjoy is interrupted by a barrage of flashing ads and autoplay videos. Finding community spaces away from the noise takes real work.

I think I’d lost the plot in college. I’ve long been into blogging and made friends with similar interests on forums, Tumblr, music blogs, and the various other places where random people with similar interests (who aren’t gamers) might meet online. I used Facebook to talk to my real-life friends and I used Twitter to make lame jokes. But eventually I got too busy, and Twitter and Facebook subsumed the rest of my online hangouts. I soon relied on both of these websites (and today, mainly Twitter) for all of my online social interactions.

But Twitter and Facebook are suboptimal ways to be social. There’s a reason why most of us don’t plan our friend hangouts in Times Square—we want to be alone with our friends and talk about the things that we like, not yelling over the crowds while trying to dodge the Naked Cowboy. The common spaces of the internet have turned into toxic places where it feels like no one’s listening to you unless you’re hot or very loud, where it can feel like we must forfeit a part of ourselves just to play along.

Bird Twitter has become a carved-out space in that mess where I can toss out the rules of posting. Here’s a bird I like, and I’m posting it because I’m excited about it—three people reply asking about where I saw the bird and how they can see it. Someone has asked the best place to see birds in your city, you just offer to take them birdwatching. Someone in the community is raising money for something, and people pitch in. It feels good.

Joining Bird Twitter wasn’t hard—I just followed a lot of bird tweeters, put them in a Twitter list, and then started tweeting about birds, creating what felt like my own comfortable corner of the larger, louder internet. If I was a little more proactive, I could have made a second twitter just for posting bird things. The system is obviously not perfect, but to Twitter’s credit, the mysterious algorithm ensures that bird tweets find the right audience (me), and if not, you can always just tweet to “#birdtwitter.”

Again, it’s not perfect—it’s still a community of people who might disagree or fight, and it’s still on Twitter. But it also has shown me that there are still positive pockets of community to be found on social media. I hope you find your own analog of Bird Twitter. If you haven’t found such a community, just know that they exist, that you can create them.

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About the author

Ryan F. Mandelbaum

Science writer at Gizmodo | I like physics and eating