As our sphere of personal privacy collapses, and we are intruded upon by technology in the most intimate ways, the human spirit necessarily retreats into itself. People find repose somewhere inside the skin, rather than without. A “person” used to be something singular in existence and presence. Letter writing and phone calling were the only other alternatives to live interaction. The digital age has dramatically changed the meaning of human identity. We have online personas that require stewardship and cultivation in addition to the lived relationships we navigate in physical space. With a multidimensional presence, it is possible to talk to thousands of people on any given day from the privacy and solitude of your home. Humans are easily located with a few clicks; hunting around in bars is no longer required. Internet and social media have forever altered the meaning of “friend.” I have about 500 friends on Facebook but only eight people showed up to my last party. Even among my local Facebook friends there are many who profess the deepest admiration for me, but it never translates into an actual visit to my home. I am no less guilty of the same.
We have become cellular in nature, each of us has our own private universe in which to self-deify, and even a platform for the exhibition of that idealized form. Your Facebook friends see you at your best, and you shield them from those unfortunate episodes when you are being strictly human. And so we live through the representation we create, becoming yet another glittering jewel on the spectacle of late stage capitalism. Rather than real privacy, we have only the loneliness of keeping our true pain to ourselves. Unmediated encounters are less frequent, and of shorter duration. People perform themselves in public as well, and simultaneously link it to the online performance identity, which they are forever perfecting and changing. Countless people inhabit not their lived body, as much as a representation of themselves. The pressures of maintaining the multidimensional façade are stressful and time consuming. For this reason a market has emerged for the protecting, grooming and promoting of our online selves. Through the relentless forces of technological commercialization we become estranged from each other. Finally, lacking viable social capital in a diverse and unpredictable world, we trust no one.
The increased distancing between individuals also reduces the amount of face-to-face confrontations. People find it easier to recede slowly and quietly, choosing silence over communication, dropping away, wordlessly turning their backs. No one offers up reasons, few express anger, they just go away in the ‘digital’ sense. The very nature of friendship has changed. It is no longer a practice, or a way of living, something that you do. It is an enactment, carried out primarily online with posts, comments, ‘likes’ and declarations of admiration. The time when a friend meant someone who would be there for you in a time of need is gone. People consider it rude to even call them on the phone. How did we get here? Friendship is now a dance of carefully constructed verbiage shuffled back and forth along tenuous bands of electronic energy. Even face-to-face meetings are carried out in elaborately contrived eclipses of convenience.
A few years ago I locked myself out of my house on a Saturday night about 10pm, and then called a good friend. She had a copy of my house key, which I had entrusted to her for just such an occasion. When I explained that I needed her to bring the extra key and let me in, she sighed and said with some irritation, “Can’t your parents come? I mean, it’s so late…I’m not really ready to leave the house right now.” Of course, I told her it was ‘no problem’ and proceeded to call my parents, who are retired and a live a bit farther from town. They asked me, “Don’t you have a friend who can do this? We are already in bed.” I explained that my friend with the key didn’t want to come. There was a moment of silence while my Dad considered the information, then he said, “Well, guess I’m coming down there kid. It’ll take me about 30 minutes.” This is the sort of experience that illustrates the idea that “a friend is, as a friend does.” People who have no real interaction with you, other than liking your posts, are not friends, they are admirers. And while it is nice to have thousands of admirers, they can’t be there for you in the physical sense.
Now lest I hurt the feelings of my dear online friends, I will say that I think friendship can be based on mutual admiration and respect. I also believe that friendship can be cultivated through the written word, so while I criticize the internet for engendering a rampant narcissism, and increasing social alienation, conversely I credit it with encouraging social interaction in a completely novel sense. I have more international friends now than I ever have. I know people on every continent. I’ve known some of my Internet friends since 1998. Bonds can form, even without moments shared face to face. I have traveled to other continents to meet my online friends, and they have done the same. Nevertheless, the nature of our relationship is quite different than my local friends. Online friends never have to deal with the real me for any prolonged time. They are my friends in the abstract sense, but they cannot help me move, water my plants when I leave town, drive me to the doctor when I’m hurt, make cookies with me, or hold me when I cry. They never see me intoxicated, angry, depressed, injured or ugly. They are having a relationship with an image of me that I have carefully constructed for their consumption, and I am doing the same with them. I’m not saying it’s not friendship, but it’s friendship in theory more than practice.
Sometimes online friendship can develop into living bonds between people. Other times the online connection cannot transfer to real life, as happened with one woman I had wonderful correspondence with for several years. We met a couple of times, and after her second visit she terminated our online contact. She claimed that I was not the person she envisioned from my writing. In a completely different example, I met my husband online and we successfully transferred our virtual romance to a loving marriage 10 years ago. I’ll be the last to place limits on the potential for creating real relationships online, my comments here are meant to serve as a warning. Too many of us trade in lived friendships for digital ones, we trade reality for the idealized, constructed fantasy. We are more focused on the numbers of comments and likes our online presence can attract, while overlooking opportunities to connect with people in our daily lives. The easiest thing in the world is to click something on the Internet and congratulate yourself. The hardest thing to do is face the world unarmed, bare of technology, eyes open, with your heart on your sleeve.