There’s a strange thing that happens between the screens of people who know each other in real life, albeit not well: it’s looser, easier to compliment someone who’s wearing a cool outfit or kicking goals at work (a fire emoji), easier to commiserate with gripes (a sad face). It’s a phenomenon that’s changing our friendships, our flirtations and our relationships.
We’ve been introduced to a new slate of verbs as romance goes digital: orbiting, bread crumbing, ghosting. The irony, it seems, isn’t simply that it’s easier to disregard a person’s feelings in the space between screens: it’s that we’ve fallen into a holding pattern of feeling a connection online that can’t be replicated in person. It’s a false intimacy.
Fortuitously, the day this pitch was approved, I stumbled across the first episode of Reply All, a podcast that everyone else already knew about. It introduced me to Miranda July’s now-defunct app, Somebody, where users could send a message to their intended recipient, read out by a real person (a nearby, fellow Somebody user) who saw something in their words. With more messages than messengers, it became a game of emotional roulette.
Could even the most earnest message—a confession of love—be diluted? The nature of Somebody—that most messages were a shout in the void, and that those that were chosen were turned into something akin to performance —suggested yes. That July’s work is full of heart seems to me to only heighten this disconnect. The intention is there. The execution is not.
It’s a concept even more pervasive in a graceless DM slide, in a heart-eyes emoji react from a guy with a girlfriend, in a… whatever the Snapchat equivalent is. Our digital lives are where the action is: where we’ve learned to flirt, where we see openings, where we ask questions, where we draw and test boundaries.
“It’s like we’ve trained ourselves to interact within the parameters of social media and the Internet, and our offline skills have become redundant. It's like giving a child a floppy disk and expecting them to know how to use it." —Emma R., 28
Relationships writer Maria Del Russo talks about a common dating behaviour where one party—typically a straight, cis man—messages within the first few dates (or even before the first date) with a disclaimer: ‘Oh, I’m not really looking for a relationship right now.’ It’s entrenched in the apps—Bumble even has a section where you can select if you’re looking for a relationship, something casual, or ‘not sure’.
It’s easy to see why this has bubbled up into real life, because it’s an upper hand that hedges the offender from being the bad guy. It’s presumption camouflaged as transparency. I’d take Del Russo’s hypothesis a step further and say that shallow social media interactions have made this behaviour easier to practice IRL: life imitating avatars.
Equally maligned and revered media theorist Marshall McLuhan—he of the cobbled-together writings, pithy axioms and pre-hipster moustache—told us that the medium is the message. Not that the words or intention are irrelevant, but that form informs meaning as much as content. Instinctively, we know this. It’s why breaking up over text is seen asobjectively worse than a face-to-face conversation. So if we’re stoking our emotional connections this way—away from eye contact, body language, touch—how much are we really valuing the other person? How much are we really valuing ourselves? It’s a perfect storm for disappointment, whether you’re after casual-sex-with-a-conscience or a relationship.
The real message of media today is ubiquity. It is no longer something we do, but something we are part of. It confronts us as if from the outside with all the sensory experience of the history of humanity. It is as if we have amputated not our ears or our eyes, but ourselves, and then established a total prosthesis—an automaton—in our place. —a suspected Marshall McLuhan bot, or a really meta joke
If this is true, then we’re no longer active participants. We are removed from putting ourselves on the line. We are congratulated for dampening our feelings.
Social media is arguably the most ubiquitous media in our lives, and so the obvious tear in the above argument is that its gravity increases. In turn, this weakens the stance that social media turns a message from something significant to something frivolous. The other obvious argument is that social media presents so many more possibilities to maintain friendships with people you’d otherwise not stay in touch with, more ways to express emotion than before. Paradoxically, the idea of authenticity has become one of social media’s biggest selling points.
The counter? That if we wouldn’t have made a concerted effort with those people anyway, why do we need to facilitate something hollow? And, if we weren’t expressing ourselves authentically before, maybe we should look at the why and not the how.
Thomas Scanlon, the contractualist philosopher oft-quoted onThe Good Place, talks about what we owe to each other. I am not a philosopher. In fact, I haven’t yet read Scanlon (it’s on the list). I’m just a millennial with aNetflix account. But the phrase ‘what we owe to each other’ has stuck with me. Because if we’re trying to live honestly, authentically, and vulnerable, then surely what we owe to each other—and ourselves—is more sincere than what social media currently affords.
Tabitha Laffernis is a writer based in Sydney, Australia. Her short fiction has been published in Flapperhouse, Hobart, and Gigantic Sequins. You can keep tabs on her work here.