I was sitting in a diner on Haight Street, right by the famed intersection of Haight and Ashbury, and I slurped chicken noodle soup while some friends and I talked shop about publishing and children's literature. We hadn't seen each other in months, but when we sat together to eat and chat it was as if we'd never been apart. And in a way, we never had been apart, thanks to Facebook and Twitter and message boards and the like. This is the beauty of social media – you can live half a country away from friends and still know everything about their day-to-day lives.
Except… this isn't really true. You know everything they're willing to share. They know everything you're willing to share. So you keep in contact, and you laugh together, you cry together, everything is better than Cats, but you still miss out on essential things. Like facial expressions. Arm squeezes. Hugs. Body language. Embarrassed glances. True guffaws.
You and your friends (and "friends") are familiar with every intimate detail of each others' lives (or the shared intimate details), but the true intimacies are lost. It's strange how, these days, knowing what someone has had for dinner or what pithy statement their child has come up with has become the essential knowledge needed to propagate a friendship. Maybe the one line movie reviews and the onslaught of smiley faces actually are the intimacies now – they actually are the essential connections – that create the peristalsis a relationship needs to stay alive and moving forward through infinite intersections of wires and tubes and technological webbing.
On some days – the days when you feel particularly isolated or glum – those dopamine hits you get from making people "like" you over and over again, they can be lifesavers. Suddenly, the non-essential information, the shared cat gifs, the rant about the grocery store, these things become essential. And not just essential to keeping the momentum of a friendship in full (or even medium or low) gear, but essential in knowing that you're not alone in a wild and wicked world.
Living in a world where no one is physically present and yet everyone is omnipresent is strangely isolating and strangely liberating all in one heartbeat.
When I was walking through San Francisco last week I was struck by the humanity of the city. It sounds ridiculous to say that out loud, but being surrounded by teeming masses when you've spent days and weeks and months mostly isolated — it can be shocking. And it's not like I've been locked in a dark basement or chained to a kitchen radiator. I do manage to get out of the house here and there. I see friends around town. But everything is 90% routine. There is no getting lost in the center of the city. There is no navigating public transportation for the first time. There is no four-mile trek through the center of town to get to a bar on a Tuesday night. My trekking is usually of the Star variety, or the treadmill variety. Being let loose in a big city I've never been to before opened my eyes in a variety of ways.
The faces I saw were not profile pictures clearly crafted to look attractive, or to send a message, or to be funny, or to show off. They were pink-cheeked and windblown and starry-eyed and angry and dirty and leering and confused and focused. The conversations I overheard weren't tips on cooking a good pot roast or advice on how to get a toddler to sleep, they were bits and pieces of dialogue, "Oh you do not even want me to say what…." "He just think I'm this…." "The meeting was pushed back to…."
I was so busy watching the humanity around me, I forgot to tell humanity that I was there. My presence in real life created a void online. I rarely remembered to "check-in" anywhere. I completely forgot to take pictures when I was with friends. I'd post a little update of what I was up to, and then forget to check to see what my friends had to say about it. I guess my dopamine receptors were full of cityscapes and fresh air and mint tea and human interaction and so that constant quest for online interaction was dulled. Or maybe, at the end of every day, I was just too tired from moving and talking to sit in front of a screen.
Over five days I saw how what I had seen as essential parts of my day – getting on Facebook, tooling around Twitter, lurking on message boards, were maybe not as essential as I thought. I don't remember the name of the diner my friends and I ate at, because I didn't carve it into social media stone. And yet I vividly remember the conversation we had – even though I wrote none of it down.
The conflict I feel, though, is that without the daily perusal of social media I wouldn't have felt so close to the friends I was able to hang out with, not just that day at the diner, but other friends I saw, too… friends I hadn't been in physical contact with for over a decade. I wouldn't have even been able to make plans with some of them, because our only contact is through social media. My relationships with friends I've known for years, and with friends I've known for decades are both deeper and more nuanced because of the details we know about each other's lives. And we wouldn't know this detail without our constant contact. Non-essential information has become essential. And, arguably, essential information (the feel of someone's arms around you, the warmth of a borrowed coat) is often non-essential to the maintenance of a relationship.
It's a conflict, isn't it? And what to do about the friends I have who live in my own town, who I "see" everyday online, but who I hardly ever see in real life? Is it better that we're able to keep in contact like this, or is this contact keeping us from feeling the compulsion to see each other face-to-pink-cheeked-face? When does the essential/non-essential pendulum shift? How can I talk to you everyday and still miss you so much?
I don't think any of these questions are new. I know I'm not the first one to raise them. But this internal conversation was a big takeaway for me, after spending a week catching up with old friends, and, really, catching up with myself.
When was the last time you plunked yourself down in the middle of a strange new city and had to navigate your way through? I'd say it was transformative, but if I'm truly honest I have to admit that even being plunked down in the middle of the city, everything was informed by social media and technology. I might not have thought to "check-in" everywhere and take a ton of pictures, but I went on the trip laden with restaurant suggestions from friends. I was led to and fro by a magical map held in my hand. I could text people at any time to keep in constant contact. So it's not like I was really, truly on my own.
But in times like these? Compared to my usual technology tether? It really was like being dropped into the center of a strange and compelling universe. I was liberated even as I disappeared from the freedom of the ubiquitous and infinite feed.
That, I think, is something to contemplate.