As a digital native, I feel that my attitude toward text interactions has moved from excitement to discomfort. Hearing the “ding!” of a Google Chat message was enough for middle-school me to start running over to the family desktop. With the animated emoticons and different text styling options, chatting online felt as though I was truly conversing. The online chats I participated in as a middle school student supplemented and continued the conversations that occurred at the lunch table and during recess.
Now, my friends from home and I no longer have interactions in the analog world to be supplemented. We are venturing into a new form of social relationship: Our interactions when we do see each other in real life supplement our interactions online.
This is what it looks like when I go home to see my friends.
On one of the days when our school breaks overlap, we meet at the coffee shop closest to the midpoint of the distance between our homes. I ask about the time they had at the beach, which I knew about from a photo they sent through Facebook Messenger, about the opinions they have of the songs I shared with them through Spotify and a blog post they shared on Tumblr.
There isn’t as much space for spontaneity, or for my friends and I to fill in lost time with stories the way we want each other to hear them. I am prompted by our interactions online to ask questions and provide answers before we take the time to reconnect. I wonder if we’d have more to say to each other if we had texted less.
While I understand that letter writing functions similarly to texting, letters are written in some form of solitude and with intent. Letters are perceived to be a personal and vulnerable communication — maybe even an art form. However, texting is low-stakes and convenient to the point that it can encourage mindlessness and take away from the conversations we are having with the people actually around us.
According to Sherry Turkle, a sociology professor at Massachusetts Institute Technology, taking out phones during social interactions “decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things where you wouldn’t mind being interrupted, and, secondly, [decreases] the empathic connection that people feel toward each other.”
It is interesting to note that when we text, we risk being interrupted as well. I’ve left conversations, and others have left me during our conversations.
Admittedly, I feel a bit complacent when leaving another in a conversation mid-way when anything remotely more interesting comes up. Whereas each time I’ve been left mid-way, I've questioned my digital existence, of being on a platform where the words I throw, the only expressible aspects of myself, aren't always caught.
Although I don’t quite view texting as the primary platform on which friendships should be actively sustained, I acknowledge the value that texting has as a communication form that requires introspection and a medium through which friendships can be formed.
Thoughts are typically too tangled in a mishmash of flashing words and feelings to be decipherable in the moment of their occurrences. There is a special clarity in the way we unpack our thoughts to fit inside the words we send to our friends.
Since each party is interacting with the other as text bubbles, rather than as substantial beings, each party can be acknowledged for the ideas they contribute and the feelings they feel comfortable communicating.
Texting also has archival value. While it can be uncomfortable that my chat history is a dossier on everything I’ve ever said, looking back on certain debates or discussions I’ve had with friends has proven to be extremely insightful. To be able to access the concrete ways in which both my friends’ and my opinions as well as texting vernaculars have (or haven’t) evolved has, in a sense, reified my sense of time — specifically, the time I’ve spent with my friends.
Furthermore, sending a quick message can be a great way to reach out to people whom you want to build friendships with. Texting provides the option of progressing through the liminal state of investment and of committing to the friendship in-person.
In his book “Intimacy and Friendship on Facebook,” digital ethnographer Alex Lambert writes about the connections people build through Facebook.
“It is common that ties are reclaimed but interacted with only on occasion,” Lambert writes. “These connections are meaningful, just not as meaningful as those which are actively sustained. They are not looked to for regular confidence, perspective, support, conviviality and the link. Instead, they are just meaningful enough for people to value Facebook’s affordance of ‘keeping a foot in the door.’”
I want my friendships to be more than “keeping a foot in the door,” and I believe it is possible to use technology in a way that “actively sustains” the friendships with both the people around us and the people we want to keep around. However, it will require more than occasional, dispersive text messages, even when they can be long passages of text describing how each of our days went.
It will take the recognition of people on the other side of the conversation as substantial, emoting beings, the conscious effort to utilize text and other technological platforms, such as voice and video calls, for interactions in real life. Technology serves as a bridge that brings us closer to each other, but I’m not sure we should stay on that bridge forever.
Rui-Jie Yew SC ’21 is a computer science major from Fremont, CA.