I dream in email… worn-out phrases

November 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

What makes someone feel anti-internet while being on the internet? I don’t know. The weird, fractured ways in which relationships/friendships are played out in random comments between people too far away to see each other, perhaps. You’re supposed to be on Twitter and Facebook to connect to people you can’t see on a regular basis but are often made to confront, instead, the ways in which these connections can exclude, limit, leave out, and just plain confuse. The internet seems to have taken all those ghastly real-life opportunities of feeling left out or being on the outside of things and magnified the effects by a hundredfold. Sometimes, connections over the internet are just one fail whale after another. There is no body language to read, there are no facial expressions to decipher.  It’s interesting how even for writers for whom WORDS! ARE! EVERYTHING! the capacity for excitement and adventure and mystery in personal relationships, even between very good friends, can be brought to a deadening halt by the proliferation of words on a screen. These words are the only clue to what the other person is thinking or feeling. Sarcasm might misfire, a joke falls flat, casual irony comes off a bit cruel. You talk to two people and forget to talk to someone else about the same thing that all of you are aware of. The space from which you can go from feeling friendly towards someone to feeling animosity, or worse yet, uncertainty, can occur within the space of a single tweet.

Zadie Smith said some things about The Social Network, Facebook, and the general weirdness of online “friendships” here. Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic responded with some comments that I thought missed some of her key points over here. What I found most intriguing were the comments in response to Madrigal’s piece, clearly showing that half of the commenters agree very much Smith, while the other half disagree strongly and agree very much with Madrigal.

I, like probably everyone else who live most of their lives online, am consistently drawn to these endless debates about the “humanity and its nature on the internet!” particularly if they attempt to intelligently parse or make sense of the inherently contradictory and endlessly error-prone nature of our online interactions. Lately I find myself being more drawn to arguments that focus on the emotional value of relationships conducted online. I mean, I still wonder if the internet makes us dumb, knowledge-guzzling, unreflexive androids at some level every once in awhile. But more interestingly I just wonder how it shapes and thus alters our interactions with people – more precisely, with the people we already know.

This particular comment to the Madrigal piece by someone named VrDrew in particular caught my attention:

That is the fundamental problem with all computer processing: it wants, inexorably and inevitably, to break everything down to a binary state. But real life tells us that there are literally an infinite range of shades between black and white, between true and false.

Think about the most basic level of Facebook relationships: The “Friend.” One has two choices – either one is a Friend, or one is not. But does that, in any way, mirror our real life experience? Who among us does not have acquaintances with whom our relationships are not, perhaps, more complicated? Real world “friends” – and yet who periodically drive us crazy? People with whom we’d gladly spend an evening carousing or watching football on TV – but yet whom we’d be loathe to tell our medical or financial woes to.

There is that, of course. There is also the friend-who-is-not-quite-the-friend-but-someone-we-know-and-want-to-stay-in-touch-with friend. But as another commenter named Lois Beckett points out:

Whenever anyone posts on a friend’s wall, he or she knows that mutual friends will see the post. If I just wanted to ask a friend a question, I would email or direct message them. Anything I post on a wall has a bit more of a flourish; it’s raising your virtual voice so other people can overhear and jump in.

This is also complicated, when the “people who overhear” comprise friends, good friends, people from your past whose friend request you could not refuse and whom you may or may not like in their current incarnation, relatives, former lovers, current friends, professional acquaintances, and the aforementioned friend-who-is-not-a-“friend”friend-but-more-than-an-acquaintance friend. So there is this sense of this talking to everybody thing that is really underlined by a fundamental sense of uncertainty. Person A tweets or posts a wall comment on really liking band X. Person B wants to say, “Hey, I like Band X too… just discovered them!” Person B goes ahead and says this. Person A says nothing in reply. Sometimes, this is okay. Sometimes, it is not.

Imagine if this conversation was conducted in person. Person A may not have to say anything in response to Person B at all. She can just nod her head, smile, sparkle her eyes at Person B (yes… sparkle), etc., and it is understood that the remark was heard and acknowledged. But the silence on Facebook or Twitter can be the equivalent of Person B talking to Person A, and Person A getting up from the table and leaving. It makes both the intention of posting a random comment on Twitter or Facebook and the intention to reply extremely vague and yet rigidly narrow. Do you want someone to reply to you or not? Are you meant to reply or not? When you write something, you leave tantalising trails for others to pick up on and respond. But the person might respond too late, or at a time when you don’t care anymore. So you don’t reply. Then the other person is uncertain. Then you’re uncertain. Fuck this shit, both of you say, we’re friends but we’re not talking to each other on Twitter or Facebook at all, so la la la la la.

The ever-exhausting conundrum: What the hell am I doing online?

Person B is pissed off, and posts a passive-aggressive tweet or better yet, blogs about this in one-long drawn out article referencing Zadie Smith. Person A reads this and goes, “…” There are so many different ways to be rejected and/or bewildered with your friends and acquaintances through Twitter and Facebook. With the really good friends, you just text or email them and say, “What the fuck?” With the in-between friend who is not a friend, there is only silence potentially leading to massive confusion or a sense of hurt, and then inevitably the “Fuck it, I can’t be bothered anymore” wall that goes up in response to the nature of these online interactions, thereby reducing what could have been a sensitive, interesting interaction to a flat, stale back-and-forth of properly proper responses: “I read this.” “Yeah, I read it, too.” “Cool.”

I’m not sure I’m going anywhere with this so much as thinking out loud, especially since these thoughts have been churning around in my mind ever since I read Eva Illouz’ Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. I’ve been thinking lately about how registering emotions online often seems to be either a very ironic or ridiculous thing to do. There is no place for hurt feelings or anger online; it just seems excessive – Why are you angry? For fuck’s sake, take a chill pill – or endlessly hilarious, like when you read insanely enraged troll-comments to an article. How do you register proper joy or happiness or delight besides smiling, by yourself and to yourself, or to the computer screen? You can insert a smiley face or say *smile*. None of this can convey the exchange of warmth between two people actually smiling at each other. That the internet does this to personal interactions is nothing new or earth-shattering, of course, and countless people have blogged and talked about this, but for me personally I seem to want to talk about it because it’s becoming increasingly harder to deal with. These random uncertainties and fears all coalesce in certain theses in Illouz’ book, which has its “Er?” moments (notably in that out-of-nowhere rant against cultural theorists and their “reductive” readings of the internet’s effects on human relations and subjectivity), but it also has its very acute and perceptive moments, especially when Illouz talks about internet dating and the psychology of the self. While she specifically talks about internet dating and its relation to traditional romance, much of what she says applies to how friendships in general are conducted online.

She talks about the internet’s “disembodied textual interaction”, and it is this “textualization of subjectivity”, I think, that proves to be what is hardest to get around:

The work of self-presentation becomes many steps removed from actual social performance and is performed both visually and linguistically not for a concrete, specific other, but for a generalized and abstract audience.

Illouz says this in relation to self-presentation online on internet dating sites, but this statement is true of online interactions between friends who live apart – and who may have not seen each other in years. In this context, however, the twist is that for those of us who are friends in real life and friends on Facebook and Twitter, we’re performing our psychological self for both the concrete, specific other and the generalized, abstract audience.

The Internet provides a kind of knowledge which, because it is disembedded and disconnected from a contextual and practical knowledge of the other person, cannot be used to make sense of the person as a whole.

Again, Illouz is referring to the initial online getting-to-know-you stage between strangers intend on embarking on a romantic quest, but this also applies to people who are your friends but whom you’ve not seen in years. What you’re doing, most of the time, is connecting this sarcastic tweet from a deliciously witty friend to the memory you have of them being sarcastic in person. It was probably a weird experience even in the past when all we had were letters and telephone calls, but particularly indecipherable at times now via applications like Twitter and Facebook. The email is still decipherable, largely, because it is one-on-one conversation; even if it’s to a group, the receiver understands that the message is indeed intended for him or her, as opposed to the vague, generalized audience of Twitter or Facebook.

Illouz also ties together some intriguing points about the body itself as being a repository of social experience – there is the information you freely give, and the information you “give off” via body language and physical presence/proximity. When you see a group of your good friends talking in a cafe, for example, you don’t have to think twice before going up to their table and pulling up a chair to join them. When an online conversation takes place, however, if your name isn’t tagged in the conversation, you spend a good many minutes wondering if you’re supposed to join in… or simply be present while it happens without participating. It is utterly, utterly bizarre at times. It is also potentially heartbreaking and time-wasting and needlessly exhausting. How to respond? The internet also robs the cold shoulder of its value. The cold shoulder, of course, is the preferred weapon of choice for passive-aggressive types everywhere. Online, a cold shoulder is simply… a non-response. The intense drama of it, sadly, is removed. No one is satisfied, no one says a thing, no one knows that something needed to be said in the first place. And on and on we go, tweeting and commenting…

Every week I tell myself to go on a week-long Twitter and Facebook “detox”. Inevitably, this will last a day or two before I find myself spilling over with something to tweet or retweet – the latter being the most cherished way of saying something while saying nothing at all. I told myself to do a Twitter detox over the weekend. I was back on Twitter about 6 hours ago. I can never shut up, it seems, and also, I never stop wanting to know what everyone else is up to. Sometimes, it’s the only way to keep in touch – with the slightest of touches. It seems that we would all really take each other’s tweets and wall posts about this and that, aimed at a generalized, vague audience, or maybe aimed at each other (no one has a clue), than have nothing at all.

*Blog title nicked from Keane lyrics. Not that I listen to Keane. Maybe. Sometimes.


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