This past week having brought us Valentine’s Day, of course the digital landscape was awash in content about relationships and sex and being more successful at both of those and whatnot. This was one of them.
As I read it, I got a little twitchy, as I am still wont to do, recalling the trials and tribulations of a long-distance relationship even this many years later. The Internet was getting mainstream then, but it was primitive. We mostly communicated online via telnet programs and email. Not too many people had cell phones yet, and those phones didn’t have cameras, apps, or any of the other key features that enable you to be connected 24/7. Hell, we wrote letters to each other.
But what I found really interesting about that article is that it’s a lot more broadly relevant than just for long-distance romantic pairings. I don’t know how many times it’s happened at this point where I’ve run into someone, or have intentionally met up, and they’ll inquire about something that we’ve never talked about before. Now, I freely admit to my senility, so my reply is often, “Did I tell you about that?” And as often as not the reply will be that they saw me mention it on Twitter or Facebook. Right.
The funny thing is, as much as it continues to slightly weird me out, even though I am the one posting this stuff, I do it, too. Hey, love the colour you painted your kitchen (I haven’t been to your house). Hey, how’s your dad doing after his surgery? (I’ve never met your dad.) We all do it, those of us who self-select into the online sharers club. On this level, it’s not a big deal. It helps maintain the fabric of connection and community, and it’s a tool to keep conversations flowing.
Some people have an all-sharing-all-the-time policy, so casual acquaintances have access to as much information about them as their best friends. Other people share a lot less publicly, but a lot more with those close to them. And, commonly, we share the most with our partners. But as the article asks: is that a good thing?
As painful and frustrating as it was, once upon a time, to have a boyfriend on the other side of the planet, there was also a rather cool sense of trepidation waiting for him to receive something awesome I’d sent him (by mail!) and vice versa. When we talked, there was no shortage of stuff to discuss, because we hadn’t been connected at the hip (or purse, or wherever you keep your phone) the entire time since our last conversation. Phone conversations were novel and kind of exciting (and really freaking expensive).
Perhaps ironically, these days I can continue to have great conversations with my best friends, with plenty to fill each other in on when we talk, because they are a lot less social media-centric than I am. They may not have seen the latest meme making the Facebook rounds. That said, a bunch of us remain in regular email contact with each other (email! yes, we are that old), but email has a lot less “push” to it than most social sharing. You may not read a message for hours after it’s sent.
I’ve been in situations of trying to spend time with someone(s) with whom there’s nothing to talk about, because we already know everything that’s going on. Now, to be fair, those tend to be less intimate relationships where there could be plenty to talk about, but we’re not at the point where we get into the Deep Stuff. The social awkwardness of those moments comes, I think, not so much from scrambling for what to say next, but from knowing that you’re a bit trapped for “closeness”. We know each other too well to just go back to small talk, but I’m not really comfortable expressing my hopes, dreams, rants… now what?
There is also the phenomenon of our era – and any era in small towns and such – where people you may not like or hardly know will still manage to know your business. To a point we’ve always had to “make nice” with people we may not like, but we are in a unique and sometimes uncomfortable position these days to have to make the explicit decision to add them into our online social spheres. Ahh yes, the dreaded unwanted “friend request”. What to do… Even the ability to craft customized virtual barriers for assorted groups in our social accounts doesn’t lessen that ”Aww, shit…” feeling when an unwanted request arrives.
The fundamental question is one of autonomy. Yes, social interactions and connections are critical to our well-being. That’s how humans are designed. But at the same time, needing that sense of connection all the time, feeling compelled to dump everything that happens in your day into some channel or another: one could argue that’s not just “the kids these days”, but more a psychological disorder.
I think it’s easy to become reliant on that feeling of social connection. Of feeling woven into the fabric of community. I also think it’s false, at least some of the time, or a lot less solid than we might think. How many of your invisible friends would or could bring you chicken soup when you’re sick, or help you move?
And attention totally can get you high. Well, positive attention at least. Negative attention brings its equal and opposite reaction. Accumulating those Facebook or Instagram likes or Twitter favourites is little different from rats pressing levers to stimulate their brains’ reward centres.
Introverts and ambiverts already know well that down time – time alone, time when no one knows what you’re up to but you – is critical. But it’s something everyone needs. And it’s something relationships need. Just because you’re in love, or have a best friend, doesn’t need to mean all sharing all the time. (And just because you are fortunate enough to have a relationship that makes you happy doesn’t mean anyone else cares or needs to be reminded of it constantly.)
No one needs or wants to know everything about another person. (Well, some people do, but we get restraining orders against them.) Hell, many of us don’t even want that degree of intimate knowledge of ourselves at times.
Because even if it’s not intended, that degree of handing yourself over (thoughts, actions, feelings, etc.) to another person is also an act of foisting responsibility onto them. Duty. We can’t just say, “Okay” and move on. We feel compelled to respond to this sharing, because that is how we’ve constituted social networks to work. Now, this does refer more to direct sharing between two people, or at most a select few. There is less social pressure when the sharing is broader in scale, usually, like when someone posts a status visible to their entire Facebook friends list.
Not only that, but we feel compelled to respond both quickly and the right way. Even if we don’t know what to say or do. Even if we’re busy with something else. Even if we don’t have the energy. Even if we just don’t want to. Except that there are consequences to not playing along that we probably want to deal with even less.
In a way it can be like caring for an invalid. They need you to do pretty much everything, and ask anyone who’s done it, even professionals: it’s exhausting, emotionally as well as mentally. Others’ need is a drain. Only to a point does helping people help us; only to a point does it fulfill and restore and energize us. And then only when there’s a reason for it, meaning behind it.
Let’s face it, there is no meaning to that picture of your latest latte art. Or your new boots. Or if you liked that movie. Or if you’re a bit hungover today. Or what Disney character you scored in a quiz. And perhaps ironically, a lot of that shit isn’t actually telling people anything about you anyway. Sharing most of this crap isn’t feeding or nurturing. Quite the opposite. The time we spend skimming through endless feeds of this crap is time we’re not engaging with people who are in our company, or doing something that actually enriches our bodies or brains.
It’s like leaving the bathroom door open when you live with someone. Do you get more comfortable with each other over the years? Sure. Do you become less vigilant in presenting a persona to that person? Sure. Does that level of “openness” really benefit anyone’s relationship? No. Yes, everybody poops. But we don’t need to subject others to it, literally or figuratively, in our homes or on social networks.