Saturday, July 9, 2011

Socializing Online Without Wanting To

In last week’s New Yorker, there was an article about online dating, exploring its origins, its multiple iterations, and its widespread relevance in the modern world. The author, Nick Paumgarten, points out that “For many people in their twenties, accustomed to conducting much of their social life online, it is no less natural a way to hook up than the church social or the night-club-bathroom line.” This is certainly true to my experience. I see nothing unusual, shameful, or frightening about meeting a person through online communication, and I can perceive some definite advantages to online dating. But at the same time, I despise an excessive reliance on the internet for social exploration and interaction. I do not have a Facebook or Twitter account, and I steadfastly refuse to get drawn into any such trend, even though it is increasingly clear that the virtual ubiquity of these sites threatens to put me at a distinct disadvantage in some contexts.

Not that any external factors are necessary to put me at such a disadvantage. I’m just no damn good at meeting, interacting with, and relating to most other people. That may seem like the sort of characteristic that ought to push a person straight towards social networking technology, but I think that my resistance to it and my own social impediments are both grounded in similar aspects of my personality. I have high standards for my personal relationships and for the sort of people I interact with. I do not seek out casual acquaintanceships, and the fact that I desire a strong element of earnestness and commitment in even the most basic friendships evidently makes me intimidating at the outset of any social interaction. It probably goes a long way towards explaining why people who are purportedly very fond of me and very interested in me never seem to call me on the telephone, even when they themselves bring up the subject of further contact. I think I appear inaccessible, and that that makes people uncertain of how to reach out to me and secure my interest when we are not meeting in passing. And when we are not, the difficulty is that one or both of us must put forth some serious effort at making a connection. Not so with online communication or text messaging.

That is what bothers me about online socialization: it is too easy, it is too easily compartmentalized, it is too non-threatening. It is, to me, not friendship, and by extension not a good groundwork for romance. My feeling has always been that if a person is worth keeping in touch with, they’re worth keeping in touch with through direct, personal, and thorough communication. I developed this aversion to social networking when I was still in high school. Yet somehow its popularity and its better aspects wore me down just slightly, and before my adolescence ended I signed up for a Livejournal account, rationalizing that it was, or had the potential to be, a medium through which to share one’s innermost thoughts with close friends and highly compatible strangers. In fact, in certain hands, Livejournal became a far more elaborate version of what Twitter has become in more recent years: a means to imbue the excruciatingly minute details of day-to-day life with an undue sense of significance.

Nonetheless, I used Livejournal according to a set of rules and personal standards, posting only diary-essays that I considered meaningful and poetry that I thought readable, and only permitting friend requests from people who had first commented on my own journal and whose journals I had read and had reason to continue reading. Despite these strictures, I made some meaningful connections with distant strangers through that site, and I continued using it throughout my college years. Myspace was at the height of its popularity during that time, and Facebook was just coming to prominence, but I never considered signing up for either, seeing the interactions that they promoted as shallow.

My aversion to social networking for friendship is grounded in the sense that it leads one to a strong emphasis of quantity over quality, and it is along the lines of what Paumgarten describes as a major drawback of online dating: “If your herd is larger, your top choice is likely to be better, in theory, anyway. This can cause problems… It can lead you to think that your opportunities are virtually infinite, and therefore to question what you have. It can turn people into products.” I’m sure that the impulse to treat other people as commodities is a long-standing human vice. But since my entire adult life has been lived in a society wherein practically everyone around me is plugged-in, I can only speculate on what quantitative difference there may be in the presence of that impulse in this generation as opposed to those that preceded it. Is it an element of the human condition or just the modern condition that I so frequently hear people talking about abruptly “moving on” from long-established friendships, or that I have experienced things like the duplicity of the woman who purported to love me, when she left me only after continuing to live with me for weeks, claiming that the relationship could be saved even while she searched for a job in New York so that she could go to live with a man with whom she had already been establishing a relationship online behind my back?

The internet may not have caused her behavior, but it certainly did enable its exhibition. It allowed her an opportunity to establish a new relationship without having to actively sever a conflicting one, in a way that would have been neither so simple nor so natural were it not for the fact of our inhabiting a world in which a “virtually infinite” range of options is as natural as once was “the church social or the night-club-bathroom line.” As a matter of fact, that was the backdrop against which she and I had met in the first place.

The truth is that for all my stubborn resistance to social networking and my similar, albeit measured, personal distaste for online dating, online socialization is so perfectly natural to and easily achieved by my generation that it has been a major force in my life even without my capitulation to its standard pressures. I am not much of a seeker of romance, but those few entanglements with women which one might call “romantic” have all resulted from initial online meetings. In one case, when I was a junior in college, an eighteen year-old high school senior took an aggressive interest in my Livejournal postings, and then, by extension, in me. Because of my ideological resistance to arms-length online relationships when good person-to-person connections were to be had, I made my Instant Message information readily available in my Livejournal profile and my telephone number readily available in my Instant Messenger profile. Without any evangelizing from me about the lesser value of internet conversation, she dropped the pretense of IM in mid-conversation, and she and I spoke until dawn, and spent hours on the phone for days thereafter. Within a week she was requesting that I come to visit her for a weekend to illicitly share a bed with her in father’s home while he was away on business. Delighted by the madness and the promise of meaningful personal connection, I bought a bus ticket almost immediately.

When that young girl’s romantic interests wandered away from me, it left a significant void wherein lay my remembrance of the profound impact she had had on me in prompting me to live life, if only for a short while, more actively and passionately. The want of similar experience and new whirlwind connections with admirable strangers led me to the pursuit of the ex who ultimately left me in such a callous fashion. I met her through Livejournal as well, found her uncommonly introspective and interesting, and swiftly began angling for an in-person meeting, since we lived in the same city, albeit different boroughs of New York. When we arranged to meet up and chat, we ended up spending an entire day together, lying side-by-side in the grass in Central Park. I had only sought exploration and a semi-casual connection with a person I believed I could respect and sympathize with, but days and long phone conversations later we were together again, she angled to spend the night with me, and declared with confidence that she loved me. I acknowledged that I loved her too, though it was in a way that was evidently less intense, less immediate, but ultimately more enduring. A week after she first slept in my apartment, she had permanently moved in with me. I was actually fairly powerless to prevent that happening, since my charitable nature necessitated my taking her in without question once she was without a place to live. When her love for me came to light, she was promptly made unwelcome by her husband. I had not known that she was married when she returned my advances. In retrospect, I should have taken her dishonesty as something of a red flag. Still, I’d gotten the excitement and meaningful discovery of a new person that I had sought in the first place, though in rather a different way than I’d expected.

The whirlwind of that initial romance seems reflected in the latest example of my online connections. In this case, which began last autumn, I responded to a unique Craigslist post seeking a platonic relationship based around an unusual lifestyle (don’t ask). She replied to my message amiably but somewhat evasively, indicative of the generally paranoid and untrusting tendencies that I have come to recognize as natural to this friend. Nonetheless, after a series of instant message conversations, I recommended an in person meeting. In this case, coming three years after the online courtship of my ex, it was not so much that I was spurred on by promise of the thrill of new discovery. With these and other originally-online relationships behind me, turning an initially successful connection into a face-to-face meeting seemed completely natural, and did not call for any fanfare or excess caution. I simply came to the swift conclusion that we had gotten all we could from the first handful of instant message conversations, and a thorough exploration of what we were each seeking to share could only be achieved with a naturally flowing conversation, complete with body-language, facial expressions, and light physical contact. That meeting also turned into an entire day spent in each other’s company, culminating in me holding her in my arms with her softly crying into my shoulders, shocked by how readily she was able to give me her trust and affection.

There were other online connections along the way. The family of one Livejournal friend allowed me to stay with them for a week during my Spring Break, and I felt that that friendship was lightly tinged with romance when she and I stood alone together at the edge of a river, speaking at length in the soft tones of hopeful sadness. And there were online flirtations with other girls, which were often dizzying and long-enduring. I have one years-long online friend whom I have never met in person but who has said that I was free to move in with her if I’d wanted to. The internet helped me to find people with whom I had much in common, and much to share, but the real substance of certain such relationships came only when they quickly moved offline. And when that happened, the connections that I had established online turned into profoundly affective, even life-changing human experiences. From the age of eighteen on, the internet has provided me with an extraordinary tool for identifying the right sort of people to be the objects of my friendship, but it has not, and it cannot, provide that friendship itself.

I honestly wish I could make these connections without the use of technology. But as I said, I have high standards for my romantic companions, my friends, and my casual acquaintances. In no case will just anyone do, and I don’t know where to find suitable companions. Particularly in the city where I currently live, I cannot even imagine where I might find people for whom I would have respect, and whose company I would consistently enjoy. Even if I knew where my potential companions tended to show up, I wouldn’t know how to spot them – not without reading their blogs or comparing our lists of interests. If I walk into a crowd and pick out the wrong person, I don’t know how to relate to them. I can’t force myself to take an interest in conversation that seems trite and insignificant, and when I find that a person doesn’t care about politics or has never wrestled with a philosophical problem, I can only think that a relationship between us offers no opportunity for personal growth to either of us. If I walk into a crowd and pick out the right person, however, I’m still at a loss as to how to interact, since I don’t know which precise interests we share or how each of us engages with them. But then neither of these problems carries much weight since I don’t know how to walk into a crowd and strike up a conversation in the first place. And I certainly don’t know how that first conversation turns into non-incidental communication, shared activities, and generally, friendship.

What I do know how to do is speak with a person one-on-one, establish a connection and a set of conversational patterns, and then integrate the same into my broader life. The only environment that seems to have made that process consistently possible is the internet, whether blogging sites, classifieds, chat rooms, or any other more intimate but less personable surrogate for the happenstance of real life encounters. For me at least, a conversation establishing myself as essentially intellectually and emotionally compatible with another person is not going to take place in a bar. And besides, I don’t go to bars. I have frankly never understood the concept of bars as places of meeting. Paumgarten quotes Helen Fisher, the biological anthropologist behind, as saying, “Walking into a bar is totally artificial. We’ve come to believe that this is the way to court. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. What’s natural is knowing a few fundamental things about someone before you meet.” And even if it’s not natural, it is more effective and more likely to lead to a meaningful connection if people have the will to actively pursue it in contexts that open it up to the totality of human interactions.

The tragedy is that with all this technology that is available as a means to forming strong personal bonds, it is often used instead as a crutch, which exacerbates the atrophy of genuine friendships and romances. Based on my experience, there is a growing number of people who conduct all activities that they would consider an element of “friendship” online. I had a coworker once who was several years younger than I, with whom I got along quite well in the context of our employment, but with whom I have not retained much of a connection since I left that job, on account of our divergent means of communication. When we worked together we exchanged cell phone numbers, but that proved to be little basis for an outside-of-work friendship. She sent me a handful of text messages, but since my cell phone plan does not include text messaging and I don’t care for texting anyway, that did not go very far. When I advised her to call me, she informed me that she doesn’t call people. Ever. I offered her my e-mail address, but she told me that she doesn’t do that, either. Evidently all of her personal communications are through short-form, publicly-viewable online sites like Facebook and Twitter. I cannot comprehend how that could ever lead to what I think of as a true friendship.

And beyond such single-person anecdotes, the ill-effect of over-reliance on technology for socialization seems to manifest itself in the very structure of social life out in the real world. I have the sense – though perhaps this is just the illusion of a profoundly alienated man – that people are more and more cut off from one another in what should be free-flowing social contexts. At the local café, it seems that fully half of the patrons never look up from their laptops. Pedestrians may never hang up their cell phones, and joggers keep their ears plugged and filled with the drowning effect of personal music players for every step of their route. The very concept of public space seems to be steadily vanishing, and I find people at every turn who bristle and visibly recoil at the sound of a greeting or the sight of smile or simple eye contact.

I recognize that I am complicit in this transition. For all my purported love of the natural world, of face-to-face human interaction, of offline discoveries, I can only seem to plug into other people by first plugging into the web. I don’t like it one bit, and I console myself with the recognition that I am at least conflicted about my reliance on technology for human connection and my tacit support of a more impersonal society. I am not providing that support willfully or mindlessly like so many others. Indeed, it is my belief that there are so many more people that are content with shallow, impotent friendships than there are people like myself that sends me into the expansive embrace of the internet. I believe that there are other people like me – people who earnestly want to reach out in person, sit with another human being, look them in the eyes, share coffee and good food, hope together, dream together, live passionately together, talk until dawn, lament the easy loss of the delightfully bittersweet flavor of existence, and unplug once they’ve found something worth focusing on without distraction.

I’ve found people like that before. Each one of them filled me with a grand sense of what it means to be alive – a sense that was painfully lacking in the time spent online leading up to that discovery. There may be more such people than I realize. They may be right under my nose, but I don’t know how to spot them, nor they me. I get the impression that the people I’m looking for – intelligent people, committed people, creative people – tend to have the same problems that I do when it comes to relating to the world as a whole. At least I guess that’s the case with those I’ve met before. We want to know who’s worth talking to before we speak, and we recognize each other by our words, even if not by our faces, and so we make our connections on the internet, knowing full well that the really meaningful bonds are formed in the beauty of the real world. I know that the people I’m looking for are there in the streets and in shops and restaurants and cafes, but until I’m better at reading people and reaching out on my own, I guess I’ll go on finding them online, and then meeting them out there.


Anonymous said...

Damn straight!!!
Bravo for having the gumption to write & post such introspective honesty

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