Is Technology Destroying Your Relationships?
I walked in the door and the hostess of the party in the posh Venice Beach apartment rushed to greet me. She introduced me to the woman who'd walked in at the same time as a prolific sex writer who was going to write a steamy novel to dethrone Fifty Shades of Grey. I had no plans to do this, but that's the way of parties. I certainly fared better than my friend Jordan, who was also there, and who was repeatedly introduced by someone else as Dick Feyman, winner of a Nobel in "something no one wants to hear over drinks."
The woman to whom I'd been introduced listened to the hostess dish about my fascinating, though occasionally dark pieces. "I make dark films sometimes," she told me, with a smile that contradicted everything about the statement. Before she could tell me anything else, we were joined by another attractive guest who shortly detoured the conversation into the dating habits of contemporary women.
"If I call a woman and leave a nice voicemail and she texts me back, that's it," he said. "I delete her number then and there and never speak to her again."
"I hope you'd cut her some slack if she's a single mom," the woman beside me interjected. "Because for me, a call from the guy I'm seeing is never as important as my son."
"Of course," the young man assured her. "I just think in general technology is the worst thing that could have happened to relationships."
It reminded me of an article I'd read recently by Stephen Marche for the Atlantic about the way Facebook is making us lonely.
In typically alarmist fashion, the piece opened with the grim image of Yvette Vickers, a former Playboy Playmate and costar of the 1958 cult classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, who was found dead in her Los Angeles home after a neighbor had noticed her mailbox was growing cobwebs. Forensic pathology suggests Vickers had been dead close to a year when she was discovered, her mummified remains bathed in the creepy glow of her computer screen.
The message is clear: no matter how many people we connect with online, we're all going to die alone.
EARLY LESSONS IN ISOLATION
I grew up 6,000 miles west of Los Angeles and 3,700 miles west of Hawaii, on an island smaller than Walt Disney World. Though culturally diverse, meeting people who were interested in the same things as me was a challenge. Don't get me wrong, I love scuba diving, riding a horse bareback through the lagoon and exploring the artifacts left behind after WWII, but I desperately craved to meet people who read the books I read and got my obscure allusions, people who wanted to talk about Russian literature, philosophy and physics, topics that completely fascinated me. No one my age cared, and those who were older and could discuss these things always approached me as my parents' daughter, the little girl that I was.
I didn't want to be a little girl. I didn't want to be my parents' daughter. I wanted to forge relationships in which I was an equal.
Fortunately for me, it was the 90s. The internet not only existed but by virtue of having a geek for a father, I had access, even in the middle of nowhere Pacific. It was the internet that put me in contact with people around the world who cared about the same things I did, people who discussed them with me as an equal. They didn't know whose kid I was, how old I was, if I was male or female, that's true. But they knew my mind and I knew theirs.
As time passed, we started getting to know the more mundane details of our lives, and as the phenomenon that would become known as blogging started taking off, we began to get deeper into them. In time, I would come out as a young woman, but by then, I was already an equal. Our ages didn't matter. Our writing, our thoughts, our ideas -- those were the only things that mattered.
I'm still friends with the people with whom I connected then. Over the years we have drifted apart and come together again -- a lot like friends in "real life" do. Just as friends in "real life" part ways after college then meet again at a conference to find they live in the same city, so too did I find old friends on different blogging platforms. Social media enabled us to cement these ties, so we could keep up no matter where we moved our blogs, or if we stopped blogging altogether.
These people saw me graduate from high school, they saw me drop out of college with one semester left, they saw me exploring every city I ever set foot on, they saw me give up alcohol, they saw every meaningful relationship I ever had and a lot of meaningless ones, they saw me get married and they saw me get a divorce. When I did stupid things, they told me so, like real friends do. When I needed comfort, they were there.
Yes, they were in Australia, England, Norway, Hungary, Hong Kong, Thailand, the continental United States, Canada -- they were scattered all over the world. But they were there, in the front row, and they provided the comfort and the tough love. They saw me and I saw them, too. I didn't just put out my life for them to read, I dove into theirs in the same way they dove into mine. For every hour I blogged, I spent four hours reading and commenting on their blogs. I was there -- in Australia, England, Norway, Hungary, Hong Kong, Thailand, the U.S. and Canada.
I might have been alone in that room, but I never felt lonely.
In the Atlantic piece, Marche talks with John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, which centers on his research into the physiology of loneliness.
His findings brought to light the syndrome known as "chronic loneliness," which appears to not only disrupt our perception and feelings of well-being, but also seems to alter the way genes are expressed in the DNA of our cells.
According to Cacioppo, the internet is only a surrogate for the "real thing," which is code for being among people in meatspace.
But does being with people physically really satisfy our craving for connection? I think back to the party I attended over the weekend -- one of a handful -- and I can't help but feel that it's not so simple. I wasn't alone, but that doesn't mean I wasn't lonely. I was there, but that doesn't mean I made meaningful connections.
For an hour, I stood beside a woman "who made dark films" repeating things I'd already fleshed out and written about regarding dating etiquette, for example, clueless as to the fact that the woman was Ondi Timoner, writer and director of the 2009 documentary about living online called We Live In Public, which deeply impacted my life.
All I can think about now is that if she and I had connected on Facebook, I would have known this and better employed my time. But that's not because Facebook is better than "real life" -- it's because I didn't ask. I didn't go deep enough.
IT’S NOT THE TOOL, BUT THE HAND THAT WIELDS IT
The thing that irritates me most about the argument that social media is making us lonely is the fact that most experts, regardless of their position, agree that social media is a tool. In the Atlantic article, Cacioppo likens Facebook to a car saying, "You can drive it to pick up your friends. Or you can drive alone. How we use these technologies can lead to more integration, rather than more isolation."
Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University and author of Going Solo: The Extaordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, is in agreement. He tells Marche: "Reams of published research show that it's the quality, not the quantity of social interaction, that best predicts loneliness."
Lastly, Moira Burke, who ran a longitudinal study of 1,200 Facebook users to determine the effects of the social network on users over time, concluded that users get what they put in. Adding people as "friends" and liking their posts does not create a meaningful connection. Just as it does in meatspace, connection online requires engagement and what you get in return has everything to do with what you give.
If you comment frequently and get into meaningful discussions with people, they are more likely to do the same with your content because they feel more emotionally invested in you than they do in passive friends who just like their content or read it without comment. In the same way, if you see an acquaintance at your local café and greet them and engage in conversation with them, you're more likely to get an invite to join them the next time around than if you simply pass by and wave as you make a beeline for the sugar-free vanilla soy latte.
It's not the technology that is the problem -- it's how we use it. In the simplest terms, friendship and love are phenomena of attention. If we make an effort to be connected and engaged, we will forge ties with meaning. If we simply broadcast or passively like photos we see flash across our screens, we won't. Friends thousands of miles away may not be able to hug us, but a text or direct message from a friend across the country -- a friend I've never met in person -- telling me, "You're going to be okay," when I need to hear this matters.
And what of the time a friend in the U.K. -- whom I've also never met in person -- phoned a Thai food restaurant here in L.A. and arranged for an immediate delivery of thom kha kai because she knew I was sick and that this spicy, coconut milk dish is my equivalent of chicken noodle soup?
How many times have I sent deliveries to internet friends I knew were locked up and cramming for finals? How many times have we come together to pitch in for a surgery or an emergency fund to prevent eviction? Social media isn't a place where humanity goes to die, it's a tool just like any other. What you get is directly proportional to what you put in.
Ignoring your friends or lover so you can check your Twitter stream is exactly the same as ignoring your friends or lover so you can take a phone call or watch your favorite television show or read the book you can't put down. It has nothing to do with the thing in question and everything to do with you. Being present is something you have to work on within yourself, not something that will be "cured" if you delete your profile on Facebook.
COUNTING THE WEAK TIES
I can't help but think that Marche's article is nothing but a reflection of his own social media usage, projected onto the whole of the population. Sure, we have all forged "weak ties," or shallow connections with people we don’t know that well online. But is this exclusively an internet phenomenon?
Many people have hypothesized that this inability to forge meaningful connections using social media has to do with the Dunbar number, the figure at which the number of meaningful relationships are capped for every human being. This number is somewhat disputed, but the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar set it at around 150 people and that's what most people go by.
Clive Thompson, who wrote at length about this in a 2008 article for the New York Times magazine, concluded that the Dunbar number is not necessarily increased by adding people on social networks. Social media enables people to connect, but relationships require much more than "ambient awareness" (the passive consumption of status updates, which is much like the act of watching TV in the same room with somebody without interacting with them). The only thing social media seemed to be changing as far as Thompson could tell was the number of "weak ties" being established.
Those discussing the "problem" of social media highlight the number of weak ties -- how many of your thousand "friends" do you really know? -- but anyone who has been to a large gathering knows that weak ties aren't just an online thing. I meet hundreds of people at conferences, for example, and the mere fact that I am there in the flesh giving them my card doesn't make it more likely that they will call me three weeks later to do lunch or that I will acquiesce.
Social networks put a number on those weak ties, but we all have weak ties in our meatspace lives. Marche bemoans how we use machines to check out at the grocery store instead of waiting in line with other people to have our purchases rung up by an actual human. But I wonder -- even if you were to speak to the woman giving you dirty looks because you're buying a product with a big carbon footprint, can you actually call that a meaningful relationship?
I talk to people all the time -- cab drivers, waiters, flight attendants, the guy at the post office, my manicurist, my barista, the boys at the convenience store where I buy my cigarettes, the guy at the newsstand. I am there, in the flesh. Does this mean our connections are any more meaningful than a like or a plus on social media?
Weak ties exist. They're everywhere. All we have to do to make them meaningful is take the chance to go deeper. This is as true online as it is offline.
REACHING OUT AND BEING THERE
Marche doesn't believe social media can create new relationships. He writes, "Using social media doesn't create new social networks; it just transfers established networks from one platform to another." My experience tells me the opposite. I know a lot of wonderful people I have never met, but who I know in a deeper, more meaningful way than I could ever hope to know my neighbors, who never seem to be home.
The magic of the web is that it offers you the ability to transcend geography. You can bring your "real life" friends into your social networks online if you like, but you don't have to limit yourself to these circles. The ability is in your hands. What you do with it determines what kind of relationships you end up forging.
That said, I don't believe that it's very unlikely that if you live in the United States, you will die alone. This is not because of technology but because of how we treat the elderly and the sick. In my home country of Peru, sickness and death are a part of life like any other -- not something shameful or disturbing to hide away in nursing homes or sterile hospitals, but something we experience together.
"In sickness and in health until death do us part" is not something we reserve for our one true love, it's the way we live with all those we love. Just as a relationship is more than the act of liking a Facebook status, so too is cherishing more than the act of meeting for coffee or having barbecues every other weekend with your nearest and dearest.
Cherishing means being there. It's not always possible when your friends are scattered far and wide, but putting in the effort to let them know you're there for them matters. Just as visiting with a friend whenever you can matters -- even if sitting around for six hours during his dialysis treatment isn't your idea of a good time.
We have all these tools: cars, planes, the postal service, phones, e-mail, social media. Let's use them to make meaning. Every second that you spend agonizing about how alone an article claims Facebook is making you is a second you're not spending reminding someone that you care about them and the role they play in your life.