Too Much Information: Being Plugged In and Meaningful Friendships

I had this one friend, when I was a kid, who always responded the same way when my mom asked if he wanted to stay for dinner. Let me call my mom and see what she’s making for dinner, he’d say. He didn’t mean anything by his response, but I later learned that mom felt that it was kind of a rude response. One doesn’t examine ones options when invited for dinner. Who knew? Today we might call this FOMO, or “Fear of Missing Out” syndrome, where one evaluates ones social opportunities often when engaged in one of the social opportunities. If done poorly or with too much obviousness, one is likely to irritate those in attendance with a sense that their presence is unimportant. This isn’t strictly a social networking phenomenon, given that my friend perfectly illustrated this behavior decades before the advent of social networking. But many feel, in this social networking era with friends sitting about at restaurants and other gatherings staring at their smartphones instead of talking with one another, that social networking is making this phenomenon worse.

In a previous relationship we suffered from long periods of not being able to see one another, but both of us spent enough time every day near our computers that we fostered a sense of connection when we saw the other logged into our instant message accounts (this was long before Facebook took off). We’d exchange a short “hello” or two and then fall silent for a couple hours, like we might do had we been actually working in the same physical office. And then if one of us had to go (offline) we’d break the silence with a good-bye. This behavior seemed to help maintain some sense of connection. Maybe that wasn’t such a great thing, in view of how the relationship went, but it’s an example of how one can adapt a tool that doesn’t diminish the relationship.

An opposite example might be from when I worked nights with the phone company during which I often has extended opportunities … well, to use the phone. My significant-other wasn’t entirely happy that I wasn’t home during normal evening hours and decided that talking on the phone was no substitute for actually spending time together, so she made it clear that she wasn’t interested in my calls if I couldn’t actually be there. Needless to say, that relationship was not long for this existence. And this isn’t to say that had she saw the value of keeping the conversation going, even if only by phone, that the relationship would have survived. But the unwillingness to adapt might indicate faltering interest that went much more deeply than the tool.

So are meaningless connections being “maintained” by social networking or is it a means of maintaining connections with those who really mean something to us, but are otherwise unavailable? I know of many who, like my ex-wife, choose to not use the tools because they feel like, if you’re not really there then it can’t be real, so why try. Then there are those on the other end of the spectrum who seem to be desperately trying to fill in their lack of meaningful relationships with as much social networking as they can muster. And finally, there are the FOMO sitting with friends, checking in on what friends who are not present are doing. Can we really blame the tool for the behavior?

As much as much of my professional life is connected to staying plugged in and informed on what’s cutting edge with technology and education I am skeptical about those who pursue technology for technology’s sake or foster all this hype that sounds suspiciously like “better living through technology.” I mean, I love the shiny but it’s not about the shiny. And I feel like we’re getting it wrong when I get all the apologies from those looking for help with their gadgets, that they’re not very good with technology. What I find funny is this often comes from someone who is in fact a wizard with Excel, making a good living with their mad spreadsheet skills, but they feel intimidated because they can’t get their damn music synced to their handheld devices. It’s not much of a stretch that it’s the same with using social networks in ones personal life: you use the tools that work for you and should never have to apologize because you aren’t an expert on all that’s out there.

My girlfriend, Tricia, and I have settled into a routine where we stay connected with one another via text-messaging and mobile-phone and when we’re not together at the end of the day we usually make time to talk via video Skype. Text-messaging was something that Tricia didn’t do much before getting involved with me but she was already a video-Skype veteran, keeping in contact with a childhood friend in Canada regularly through video Skype. Interestingly, even though we do spend a lot of our work day near our computers we’ve never connected via IM or maintained a sense of presence with an IM connection. And we both monitor our friendships and family via Facebook, with Tricia often telling me things that my nieces are posting, for example, that seem to get by me. Thus she gets the better-at-Facebook award from me. So, surprise, surprise, we seem to have a balanced approach to how we stay connected with one another and with our friends that helps us maintain our need to be connected without feeling like the tool is more important than the connection.

skype by jayneandd (2010-03-29)

skype by jayneandd (2010-03-29)


At the same time I still haven’t quite figured out how to foster better connections with my friends and family far flung across the country. I used to take the time to call friends much more regularly. Sadly I have to confess that my motivation to connect was stronger in no small part because I didn’t have someone special in my life, so I was trying to fill the void via my array of friends. Damn. As much as I’d love to have closer relationships with friends and family such that a video Skype call would be a regular ongoing thing, the problem isn’t tech-related as much as changing the relationship patterns that we’ve created over the years. It is one of those things that’s completely understandable that they might feel like it doesn’t make sense to make the effort if it isn’t something that either party is going to maintain. It’s kind’a sad and it is something that might be improved with the addition of seeing the smiling faces that I miss. But I tend to fall back on the belief that my intended-communique-comrades already have full lives, that something like a video Skype call would be too intrusive or even artificial. Too bad, but then I guess it’s up to me to put the effort into it.

I didn’t expect my article on social networking during TMI week to turn into a confession that I seem to suck at friendships. Not something that I can blame on the technology, not something that I can claim the higher ground on, and it’s definitely not something that’s one-size-fits-all. There will always be those like my ex-wife who reject any connection attempt that isn’t mostly face-to-face and there will always be those who go further, believing that these tools are destroying our culture. I guess I don’t have to worry about trying to set up a video Skype call with them (and they probably don’t have the hardware to do a video Facetime call either). But it would be nice to go beyond the relationship snippets that flow by me in my Facebook and Twitter streams, and spend a few meaningful minutes smiling into the faces of those whom I’ve loved, laughed and cried with and who helped me build this amazing life I’ve been lucky enough to have and appreciate.

Sources:

image: とらちゃんとfacetime (2012/3/6) by Tatsuo Yamashita, http://www.flickr.com/photos/yto/6814049128/ retrieved 5/17/2012.

image: Skype by jayneanddhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/jayneandd/4500707987/ retrieved 5/17/2012.

Youtube Video: Inspiration: Nokia – The Fourth Screen Uploaded by stevelitchfield on Oct 6, 2007
Archived from Nokia’s press material for the Go:Play events, this short video is truly inspirational and applies to all true smartphone and next generation mobile devices.