If you think for a moment that the internet and its far-reaching changes to our culture has not changed in a fundamental way how we find, build, maintain and even end relationships with others, you haven’t been paying enough attention. The shortening of time between call and response, the geometric increase in available information (and, at the same time, the ways we filter that information), and the shift in media from limited source well funded operations toward infinite source inexpensive disclosure, at such a fast pace has forced all currently active generations to shift their awareness of themselves and others in unexpected ways.
You want an example? Fine.
When I was growing up in the eighties and nineties, I had one way of meeting people. School. In my town of less than thirty thousand people, there were six elementary schools and one high school. I knew the same fifty or less kids from when I was five until when we all went from grade eight, in Elementary, to grade nine in High School. The shift from the less-than-fifty kids I knew in my grade, to the three hundred plus in the same grade when I went from one school to the other was massive. There were cliques I didn’t even know existed, classifications and grades of acceptedness or strangeness I had never heard of – I met my first goth in grade ten, the only one in the school (You out there, Goble?) – but it was still fairly easy to tell who was in and who was out.
Then the internet happened.
One of my friends had a BBS up and running in the middle of 1995 which I was on. It was interesting, but didn’t have much use because it was very closed in; the same ten people, all of whom I knew in real life, essentially having text-based phone conversations. Boring, right? But then, when the shift started from BBS to real networking, Tripod happened. First chat I ever went on, in the middle of 1996. I had my first website then as well. I met a lot of people, one of whom was from Winnipeg, where I live now, nearly a thousand kilometers away – long distance relationships set fire in the late nineties, and it’s still happening today. They simply didn’t happen with the same reliability then. Anyway – fastforward another year, and I found Alamak.
Way to ruin your own life, right?
I dove in.€I started doing text-based roleplay, which swiftly replaced the fleeting interest I had in D&D and other systems because it was much more flow-and-composition than random encounter. People lived their entire lives for their characters. I admit, I was one of them, and I still am, thirteen years on. Nearly half my life now has been spent in frantic fiction, composing entire universes to explore.
This is where things get really interesting, because in mid-96, my family moved from Thompson to southern Manitoba, so there was a really sharp division between the friends I had from childhood, all of whom wrote me off because I was leaving (except ChickenBall, who remains and puts up with me, gods bless him). When I hit Pine Falls, I barely knew anyone, but that barely mattered. I got back on ‘mak whenever I had the chance, made some new friends with the new crowd, and quite literally didn’t give a crap about most of the two thousand people in the town.
Isn’t that interesting? I had gone from being a nice boy, fairly well known because that was how life worked, to being a self-made pariah in the course of six months. Now, I don’t blame this on the net itself, but it certainly made things easier. I do have a number of friends in Pine Falls still, many of whom I haven’t actually spoken to in a while.. But we’re on Facebook, so that’s good enough, right? But, see, even then there’s a huge shift from the way I maintained my friendships as a kid, years ago.
Before the internet, people used to do things on the fly. I remember, even in Pine Falls, getting random phone calls in the middle of an evening, someone making plans to go for coffee (which amounted to sitting in a restaurant for five hours with six people at the table, just chatting). Lately, even though I have a deeper intellectual connection with what friends I have, the active face-time has shrunk. The amount of spontaneous get-together has gone down drastically. I don’t feel so bad barely having seen people in weeks because, you know, we’re all busy and we still text each other and so on… But something just feels different.
It comes down to a few simple changes in the process of communication as facilitated by the technology we’ve begun to take for granted.
And part of it is how we approach each other. I feel really comfortable on the web talking with people – even if it’s instant messaging – in part because, while the response time is far shorter than voice mail was and even shorter than a phone call usually is, I’ve got time to compose. I like that. I read far faster than I speak, and usually type faster than I speak as well, so because I’m still wired for conversation-speed discourse, I can devote a few more milliseconds to my responses. It means I come off a lot more composed (because I have time to compose myself) than I usually am.
There’s also a component of this that has to do with our own personal branding. And I use that in a very loose sense, because I’m not speaking just about marketing, or how we use brand names for status. When I talk personal branding in relation to building friendships, I mean that people take much more stock of methods of communication than they used to. Not on Facebook? Well, ok, what about Twitter? No? Oh. Have a cell phone? Great! Blackberry? Has instant messaging? No? Is it a smart phone, can I email you? Oh. Text message then. Ok. If I have to. Even when we’re meeting people in meatspace for the first time, we no longer judge them just by that first impression, but in many cases by the methods with which we can access them in the future. It’s great for networking, because a vCard sends quite fast, and once we’re linked in (har, sorry) there’s so little effort in renewing these tiny connections that very often we take them for granted.
I worry about this sometimes.
Every so often, it feels like we’ve gone off the deep end as a society. That this truncation of process in building friendships has had a deeper effect than even I’ve noticed – and I pay attention to how I interact with people. I have to, it’s part of what I do for a living. Everything I’ve brought up here has happened in just the last twenty years or less – and it’s getting faster. There may be more to life than increasing its pace, but it seems sometimes like no one cares.
I’m not saying that this foreshortening if connection is a bad thing – I’ve connected with a lot of interesting people lately, and it’s reassuring to know that we owe each other little more than a blog comment here and there, and that’s enough. But I wonder what differences even from this to, say, five years from now we’ll notice when we pop up from behind our desks (or lattes) and look for our communal shadows to see if the winter of real friendship is over.
I hope you’re nurturing your friendships. If not, is it time to look at what you could be doing better?