People love to complain about how technology is ruining our social skills and putting distance between us and generally starving us of human connection to the point that eventually, we might cease being human at all.
And I hear that. I really do, but in bitching about all of that, we’re missing the real damage that the Internet & All Its Friends have done to our social interations:
It’s turning us into dating pussies. This needs to stop.
Think about it: Between being able to interact on social media, we’re able to passively, safely, excusably show interest in each other without venturing too much of a personal risk. We’re sitting safely behind our computers Liking each other’s statuses, knowing that those gestures can easily be interpreted as romantic interest or can just as easily be dismissed as simply “No, I just actually liked what you posted. Don’t read into it.”
Every interaction online carries an ambiguous message behind it. To a different degree, texting and emailing do the same thing – without facial expressions, voice inflection, body language, and all the paralanguage that gives actual meaning to our words and actions,
And all of this, we know it. Even if we don’t consciously think about it, we are completely aware of the ambiguous nature of how we connect through technology. And we do it because it’s safe. It’s a way to gauge how interested someone might be in us before really putting ourselves out there in a blatant way. If we detect that maybe they don’t want to see us naked, we can always retreat and switch directions and pretend that all of our digital interactions were completely benign and platonic, all while easily keeping our pride protected and our feelings intact.
It’s not always terrible to do this. I think we all kinda love that technology gives us at least the option to take the temperature of a new connection with someone before taking dangerous emotional risks. The problem is when we get addicted to the safety of mixed digital messages and stop choosing to take a real life risk ever.
I recently ran into a guy I went to college with. We were at a mutual friend’s birthday, and had not seen each other since graduation, which was almost 2 years ago. Having shared the same major, we lived somewhat parallel lives for those 4 years; never really close friends, but always consistently friendly, and often we had found ourselves at the same parties and school events. As we were talking that night, having the standard catch-up conversation – how are you? What have you been up to? What kind of work are you doing? Do you still hang out with Casey? – and, as these conversations always do, it eventually got to our love lives.
He asked if I was seeing anyone. I responded that I wasn’t, that I had broken up with someone a while back and had been focusing on work and friends and myself, etc. – the shit you say when someone asks you if you’re seeing anyone and you want to make the fact that you’re not sound like a totally healthy, totally intentional choice. So far, there was nothing at all remarkable about our exchange. These were the things you say to a former acquaintance when you run into them and feel like your past relationship was just substantial enough that you are obligated to give them a few minutes of your time.
But then he got a look. Such a fleeting, subtle change of expression that if I had blinked, I wouldn’t have seen it at all. But I did, and having had just enough glasses of wine that night, I called him on it, playfully: “What what that look?”
He hesitated. I saw him immediately start to deny that there had been a look at all, to dismiss my good-natured accusation of unexplored subtext, but just as quickly, I saw him abandon that plan and opt for honesty instead.
“Honestly?” he said, “Honestly, I guess that look was me kinda kicking myself for never asking you out. I always wanted to.”
There was that great atmosphere to the conversation where, for some reason, it felt like we could be super casual and open about this. Like it didn’t matter anymore, and we would probably not see each other after tonight, so why the hell not analyze our almost non-existent relationship from years ago?
“Well, why didn’t you?” I asked, as I started to remember that there had been a period where our digital communication…escalated. You know how it goes – we became Facebook friends, and at first, he just Liked things I posted every now and then. And then he started leaving whole comments. Once or twice, I think he went so far as to post interesting articles about things that he believed I would like based on his limited knowledge of who I was. I recalled that he had sent me a funny picture – something really very smart and witty that I can’t remember now – late one night, and I had forgotten to respond because I was on vacation at the time, and never really cared much about social media anyway. Slowly, the interactions stopped. We graduated soon after and that was that.
“You just didn’t seem that interested, I guess.”
Here’s the frustrating thing about this conversation, and the realization of how things had played out in his mind back then: I liked him perfectly fine. He was cute, we had things and friends in common. It would have make sense for him to ask me out. I would’ve been flattered. I would have said yes. But he never asked. And what he believed were attempts to assess my level of interest – completely basic social media interactions – were utterly lost on me. And that’s the problem with using technology for the purpose of figuring out how someone feels about you, or trying to communicate how you feel about them: It’s such a sterile form of engagement. There is absolutely no way to know if the person on the receiving end will understand the message you are truly trying to send, and there’s no way for them to know exactly what you mean to say.
In this case, it’s not like I lost sleep thinking about what might’ve been. I don’t think this was some epic love story we missed out on. But who knows – maybe it was. The really disappointing thing is not some acute sense of personal loss about a shot with this guy – it’s the small pang of regret that we missed our chance because of unnecessarily mixed messages, and a lack of bravery on his part to just ask me out or express his interest in a clear, old-fashioned, in-person, human way. At least then, we would’ve had a fair chance to genuinely know what was what.
The disappointment I felt after running into that guy wasn’t so much about him – it was about the knowledge that this shit is happening all the time. Social media and texting and email and all of it, has us all trained to retreat to the comfortable safety of impersonal communication. Can we just be done with this already? Can we just use technology for exchanges that don’t need all the human nuance that flirting requires and just go back to having to deal with butterflies and nerves and doubt and working up the courage to tell someone how nice you think they are? Because I don’t think you can skip over that stuff. I think if you want the reward on the other side – the possibility that that person feels the same way about you, or at least could one day feel that way – you have to take the risk. There is no cheating it. And in an effort to skip over the scary parts of having feelings, we’re sometimes missing out on the actualization of the feelings themselves. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think being safe is better than indulging in the messy, amazing process of actually feeling things.
Technology is great, and has a great many useful applications. But I’m calling it: When it comes to our hearts, we need to get the fuck off the internet. We need to stop texting and start calling. We need to stop calling and start showing up. We must stop Liking someone’s status when what we mean is, “I like you.” When it comes to having the most important human interactions – whether those are between friends, family members, lovers, or possible loves – we scale back and take those moments back to their basic, raw, perfect, un-digitized, terrifying, wonderful form. We could be missing out on a lot if we don’t.