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The Trouble with iComm

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I sometimes wonder whether our uber-connectedness has left us more than a little disconnected.

There's no denying the ubiquity of iComm. Long ago, we gave up talking in favor of typing. (My landline rarely rings. Does yours?) More recently, email conversations -- thanks to the seductive buzz of the smart phones in our pockets -- have given way to pithy texts.

This is especially pronounced among teens, and girls in particular. A friend with a teenage daughter once told me that their monthly phone bill, which itemized the texts, came in a box, rather than an envelope.

According to a recent Pew Research Center report presented at an education conference this week, texting is the dominant form of communication among teenagers -- who blast out on average of 60 texts a day. Some quick numbers from the report's summary:

  • Older girls remain the most enthusiastic texters, with a median of 100 texts a day in 2011, compared with 50 for boys the same age.
  • 63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. This far surpasses the frequency with which they pick other forms of daily communication, including calls to cell phones (39% do that with others every day), face-to-face socializing outside of school (35%), social network site messaging (29%), instant messaging (22%), talking on landlines (19%) and emailing (6%).

We grown-ups aren't all that different. That same Pew study reports that what we do most with our cells is text. An earlier Pew study found that adults who text send or receive an average of 41.5 messages a day. Among 18 - 24 year olds, that number soars to 109.5. That's a lot of LOLs.

Before I go on, let me assure you that I'm as insanely Apple as the next geek. I have an iMac at work, an even newer iMac on my desk at home and a MacBook, iPhone and iPad always within reach. I've also got an iPod, but I'm not sure where. And yet, Apple cliché that I am, I can't help wondering what we lose when our main form of communication is dependent upon the dexterity of our opposable thumbs. Call it the curse of the small screen and smaller keyboard, but both render writing (or reading) more than a sentence or two a pain in the ass.

Can you go deep without going long? Do our relationships suffer as a result?

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, suspects we may be sacrificing intimacy on the altar of instant connection. She agrees that texting is great for keeping in touch, but when texting becomes a replacement for conversation, that's where we enter the danger zone. At a TED Talk earlier this year, she discussed ways in which our instant communication can in fact hide us from each other:

Across the generations, I see that people can't get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right. But what might feel just right for that middle-aged executive can be a problem for an adolescent who needs to develop face-to-face relationships. An 18-year-old boy who uses texting for almost everything says to me wistfully, "Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation."

When I ask people "What's wrong with having a conversation?" people say, "I'll tell you what's wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can't control what you're going to say." So that's the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body -- not too little, not too much, just right.

One more presentation of the iconic self? Communication professor Charlotta Kratz, one of my colleagues at Santa Clara University, hears similar stuff from her students: "They prefer to text because they don't want to talk to anyone," she says. "Even talking on the phone is awkward." She recalled one student telling her that driving the 30 miles over to Santa Cruz with a group she didn't know well for a class project was pure hell.

"We talked about generational differences and I told them that their tech non-savvy grandmas would make three new best friends on that car ride," Kratz said. "They agreed." Still, she says, "I'm not sure we lose anything necessarily [with texting]. I think it's better to ask how things are different. People are available 100 percent of the time now, for one thing."

But what's interesting is that the 24/7 availability comes with its own rules that, SCU feminist scholar Laura Ellingson has found, often follow age-old gender scripts, at least when it comes to relationships. Women are accused of being curt and mean if they send short texts, men are labeled girly if they are expressive. In a recent feminist methods class, Ellingson's students investigated ways in which texting is gendered. "They found mostly that women send longer, more detailed messages with more emoticons and exclamation points and other ways of expressing emotion more explicitly than men did," Ellingson said. "Both genders found that the medium is prone to misunderstandings and hurt feelings and unintended consequences."

But what Ellingson found most disconcerting about the class project was that two of the groups pursued themes around women's over-analysis of texts for subtle meanings, essentially blaming the women for miscommunication, rather than the men who sent extremely brief texts:

This is not a scientific study by any means, but it was illustrative of the point that in heterosexual relationships, it is still women who bear the majority of the responsibility for maintaining the health of the relationship; they are supposed to text as often as he wants to hear from them, but not too much so as not to be seen as "needy." They anxiously try to ferret out cryptic meanings in texts and then get labeled neurotic by the very men who expect them to competently interpret their meanings. The one thing that men are in charge of is the initial text following the exchange of cell phone numbers when first meeting or first becoming interested in each other. Women and men both said that it is up to the man to initiate first contact, and that women are seen as needy if they text first.

Whew. I have to wonder if all this angst could be eliminated by some good old-fashioned face time. Or a multi-sentence conversation that doesn't need emoticons. The point, I guess, is that life itself is messy, complicated. There are choices to be made and selves to find. And yet: as with all our digital diversions, we avoid actual interaction in favor of the intensity of nonstop, always-on, mass i-teraction. And so you have to ask: what is it that we're after? And, what is it we're avoiding?

I could go on. And would. But I just got a text. Gotta send a reply.