Close to 30 years ago my African American History professor (whose name escapes me) predicted the detriment the Walkman™ would have on relationships. He wondered why people found it necessary to plug their ears when in public. He questioned if people did this to avoid talking and used the Walkman™ as an excuse to disconnect from those around them.
It was the late 1980’s when Dr. So-and-So asked, “What is so scary about relationships?” While I can’t remember his name, or much else about that semester at FAMU; the question continues to impact me today. Much is now being said about the negative impact social networking has had on our ability to connect. That classroom exchange continues to have relevance. Was the Walkman™ a precursor to a decline in our intimate relationships?
Compared to face to face contact, on-line relationships allow people to express themselves with little interruption or interrogation. We email, text, and stomp through each other’s comment section without a second thought about the consequences of our words. On-line, we can avoid being directly challenged, but there is an increase in being misunderstood.
Social networking provides a non-direct way of conversing that can lead to interacting on a surface level. We read posts and look at “pics” to gather information, and then respond based on our understanding of that information. Without hearing the inflection in the speaker’s voice, or witness their body language, we chat without knowing all of what is being said. Is that the intent?
Are we attempting to dodge the dance of honest exchange? Is the goal to side-step intimate communication? Are we endeavoring to avoid the complexities that are intrinsic in one-on-one relationships? Are we too busy to make time to develop authentic connections?
Like most of you, Facebook has put me back in touch with people I hadn’t conversed with in years. Depending on how often a friend or family member updates their status, I can know what they are doing no matter where they are in the world. Instead of calling, or writing, or depending on updates from family members, I can glimpse into their lives without them even knowing. As true as that is, it’s also a bit creepy.
There was a time when discussing someone’s life without them being present was considered gossip. Now, we scroll and report on what we see as if we heard the information first-hand. Social media makes it possible to have parts of our lives constantly on display and available to be critiqued, judged, and even dismissed.
We can argue that this accessibility is more convenient than having conversations that can wander from a specific point; but this convenience is laced with danger. 1. We can become “lurkers” who merely observe and don’t connect. 2. Based on the comments and “likes” we receive, we can fool ourselves into believing we are in a caring relationship, and 3. We may even censor our posts for the approval of people who should no longer be in our lives.
On-line relationships allow us to connect on the fly. We give snippets of what we feel safe enough to share. Unfortunately, this “on the fly” way of relating has found its way into our face-to-face encounters too. Often, we find ourselves in rooms full of people merely sharing space with no interest in disclosing who we are as individuals. Just like it was with the Walkman™ of the 80’s, we seek to fill our lives with noise and activity and hope it passes as relationship.
But who can blame us? According to most media outlets, there is a prevalent message to trust no one. Many movies support the notion that, if we do find someone to bare our souls to, he or she then dies, and we’re left alone anyway. Is there a conspiracy to ruin relationships and have us each stumble through life alone without community and collaboration?
So, the question becomes: How do we combat this? Do we OMG and LOL our way through life? Or, do we let our guard down and do our best to be authentic? I’m not talking about a pseudo-transparency that is nothing more than treating anyone willing to listen as a dumping ground for our emotions. No, I am calling for more face-to-face conversations that focus on legitimacy and learning about each other; no matter how awkward that may be. Who’s with me?