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Zac Hill

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The Intimacy Gap

Posted: 07/14/11 03:58 PM ET

"Send Private messages to people by only sharing your post with them, disable reshare" --Google+ "CheatSheet"

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"Please read my letter // and promise me you'll keep // the secrets and the memories // we cherish in the deep." --Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Please Read the Letter"

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I have been meaning to write this essay for a long time -- almost two years actually -- ever since a couple days before I left Malaysia, the following two things happened within hours of each other:

  1. I started actively posting to my Twitter account
  2. I heard the woman singing.

It was late July and raining, hot, wet, heavy rain, the kind that feels like the Earth is sweating. The mud caking the street (Jalan Sarekei off Jalan Pahang, near Titiwangsa Monorail station in Kuala Lumpur) was the color of old boots, and the tepid flow of the Klang reminded me of a plumbing stoppage. I was working late and frustrated in the way that waiting in line for groceries is frustrating. Deadlines loomed. Projects compounded. The bill we were working to pass had been killed and greenlit and killed again, with no clear rhyme or reason as to why.

I was stepping outside for fresh air (it was sundown, my normal ending-point, so in a little act of expatriate rebellion I wanted to waste ten minutes and hunt down a Coca-Cola) when suddenly my view was seized by a man feeding bread to a flock of birds.

There must have been a hundred of them, feathered white bodies piling over one another like luggage on a bumpy ride, vying for bread. The restauranteur next door -- a large Tamil man named Santa who did in fact look like Santa and cooked the best Aloo Gobi in the city -- was breaking capati in his hands and unleashing it upon the birds, who scrambled for the bits and pieces like baseball fans surging for a home-run ball. The teeming mass was as one breath. It was amoebic, a single organism, roiling and trundling for the flecks of food -- and suddenly, with great fanfare, Santa hurled the bread into the air and in a tornado of momentum the flock heaved into the air and eclipsed everything. For a moment they stormed, the sound of beating wings like a thrumming dance, the sky awash with motion, and when a second later they dissipated he was gone.

Now, I know all that happened was that he walked back into his shop and set himself about cleaning dishes, baking bread, or whatever. But in the surrealness of that moment it was though he had ascended into the air with them and disappeared. I was speechless. My mouth was literally hanging open. Very few things moved. All was silent.

It was in the heaviness of that silence that I heard a woman's voice. A song, sonorous and clean, even-pitched, ancestral, a primordial sound like something instantly familiar, something I had heard a million times before. But I couldn't place it. It was beautiful and immediate and somehow urgent, yet as I pored through radio station after radio station in my mind trying to dig up the tune it just wasn't coming to me.

Then I looked to my left and saw the woman washing dishes, cleaning up her food stall for the night, and in a rush of clarity I understood.

The reason the song was familiar was that I had heard it basically every day now for the last year. The same woman singing at sundown. I would step out of work to walk back to the monorail and she would be packing up her things, singing to pass the time, idly singing, barely or perhaps not at all conscious of it, and it was almost impossibly beautiful, but I would be thinking of an email to send or a white paper to write or a clever line to spout off at the bar an hour later and I would just miss it. I could not hear the music that was playing very clearly right in front of me. I could not take the time to just perceive. I was submitting to the noise, yielding to the pulse of the information maelstrom, and I resolved to never allow this to happen to me again.

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To whet your appetite for indulging my melodrama this far, I hope to address in the following pages (at least tangentially):

a) why Girl Talk albums epitomize the way we all participate in media culture;
b) why ten years from now, every interview with every author under 40 worth reading will feature a story about how he or she stayed up until the wee hours of the morning chatting on AOL Instant Messenger with someone he or she barely knew, yearning, knowingly or unknowingly, to forge some sort of meaningful, lasting connection with that person;
c) why every avid Gmail user from 2006-2009 can chronicle the rise and fall of at least one relationship entirely via the "Chats" folder of their Google account;
d) why it's possible for people sporting in the neighborhood of ~2060 Facebook friends to feel utterly, despair-inducingly, omnipresently alone;
e) why the Internet of 2001-2007 (or so) was an unparalleled and maybe irreplaceable medium for genuine communication between people;
f) why we never appreciated it when we had it back then, largely because the 'we' in this sentence represents the tiny sliver of the population that was experiencing first adolescence and then early adulthood across the dawn and dusk of the internet boom, and so for whom everything was to be experienced fully in and of itself, and so was consequently not to be analyzed and commented-upon from a distant, critical lens; and
g) how maybe, just maybe, we can get all of this back.

The launch of Google+ this past week has crystallized exactly where we stand amidst the social media revolution. Our digital lives exist inside alternatively public and private spaces that, far from being accessible through a single door -- our email accounts, our AIM screen-names, our collegiate-only Facebook walls -- manifest themselves across Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook (still), MySpace (yup, still), Google+ (now), and everywhere else in the same multifaceted, complex, and inherently limited patterns that our 'analog' lives operate in as well. We are constantly broadcasting, permanently scrutinized, and only recently have we learned that sometimes we need to shut the blinds. Very few of us know the reach (and limits) of our images, our brands, and ourselves.

All of this is super weird.

-

Once upon a time, to talk to somebody, you had to talk to somebody.

I don't mean this the way my grandmother means it. I mean that, as of very recently on the Internet, if you wanted to get in touch with someone you had to engage them, wave your hands in front of their face, announce "I am talking to you," sit down, and have a conversation.

You had to email them. You had to Facebook message them. You had to click on "xXMagisterKaos33Xx" on your AIM sidebar and, independent of the other 6.93 billion people on the planet, engage them in a window that contained your name and their name and your words and their words and the immutable proof of conversation.

And we did this a lot . And it was sacred .

Look. I don't want to overstate everything. Ninety percent of the time I was talking about girls, or talking to girls, or talking about girls to girls. Or I was talking about play rehearsals, basketball games, and homework assignments. I was talking about StarCraft, Team Fortress Classic, or Magic: The Gathering. I was talking about everything. I was talking about nothing. I don't want to overstate the profundity of an everyday routine.

The key, though, is that despite all this I was talking, often intensely and in-depth, to another human being one-on-one. The barriers to entry had been broken down. It was socially acceptable to engage someone, to demand some fraction of their time and attention exclusively. No statement was being made in doing this. No social infraction was being committed. It wasn't at all weird to say, "I want to talk to you individually about something."

In these kind of environments, it's easy for the other ten percent of conversations to emerge -- especially when you're younger, it's easier than real life! You have the time, and distance, to put your thoughts in writing. To formulate and organize them. To really mull them over. To argue and consider. More vitally than that, it's easy to talk about meaning, to in essence ask, "I want you to like me. Do you like me?" It's easy to learn about someone -- to listen, to give them time. To soak up their selfhood, bask in the exchange of vulnerability and mutual investment. To care about who they are.

When I look back on my closest friends, I can earnestly say that I came to know almost all of them via AIM or Gchat -- and for the ones of them for which that isn't true, we either grew up together, lived together at some point, or participated in something having to do with dramatic performance, which, well, I mean. And my first instinct was, "Wow, I'm a giant nerd and need to get out from behind the computer more" -- except, thing is, I kept having this same conversation!

It's not true of everyone, of course. You had to basically be in high school when AIM popularized itself independent of AOL, and in college when Facebook became a thing. You had to have regular access to the Internet, which meant that you were a certain Kind of Person w/r/t income, interests, spare time, etc.

But still, it was way more people than I thought.

People will ask, too, why that's true of AIM and not, say, the high-tech invention of the land-line telephone. After all, it's one-on-one communication, right? But there's something fundamentally different, fundamentally less transitory, about communication that's preserved in writing. It's less awkward and less 'noisy'. It's on the record. Practically speaking it's not loud, so you can do it for a lot longer. You can get up and leave and say "one sec" and eat a sandwich and nab a banana and sit down and continue a sentence. You can sit and chew on it for awhile. You can think. You can feel -- and none of it's a show, because of the privacy of the screen, the keyboard, and the words.

For similar reasons, such intimacy isn't really feasible in "IRL" situations -- largely because the people with whom you were AIMing were the people you were building up to chilling with in the first place. In many ways, that's exactly my point -- the intimacy of the semi-early Internet enabled a rapidity of relationship-building that led, I think, to a really awesome large-scale level of connection between people that's hard to replicate right now.

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So what changed?

The advent of Facebook was totally awesome. It hit my campus in February of 2005. The graph of "productivity", "creepy, stalker-like behavior", and "time" would form almost a perfect "X". It was a phenom. We all loved it. And it enabled a number of genuinely good things -- it was easier than ever, for example, to keep up meaningful contact with friends you'd lost to colleges across the country.

But with Facebook came the Wall, and with that, the infringement of the public hemisphere upon what was previously a mechanism for strengthening private relationships.

All of a sudden, talking to someone didn't just mean "Hey, I want to talk to you." Instead, it meant something very different: "I want to talk to you, and "I want to be seen as talking to you."

To use game design terminology for a minute, talking to other people became not just an act of expression, but an act of avatar-building. Every act of speech became, tacitly or otherwise, an opportunity to be judged by people at large. Witty statements made you look good. Similar interests invited similar company -- more friends, more things to talk about. Most importantly, the entire construct of intimacy was thrown out the window. People behave differently in private than they do in public. The Wall -- and with it, the profile page more generally -- was public.

Of course, the option to message people still remained. But now the act of messaging -- the act of isolating one individual apart from the 6.93 billion other individuals and talking to him or her -- had something with which to contrast itself (that something being, of course, the wall post). Now the act of messaging was a deliberate move towards intimacy -- which is, of course, awkward. Which is, in some sense, a Statement. It's uncomfortable to make Statements. And so we stepped out of our embrace as the earth cracked between us, and drifted inevitably apart.

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The real beating though came on December 13, 2007, when the requirement to begin a status update with "YOURNAME is..." was removed. This ushered in the era of the broadcast.

Entities interact via media in one of two ways. They either communicate with one another, or they broadcast at one another, and these two modes of interaction are mutually exclusive. Communication is based on mutual agreement. There are expectations about the ways in which people communicate. Communication is other-centered. The intent is to impart meaning that somehow adds value. By contrast, broadcasting is based upon non-reciprocal interest. It is based upon the need to disseminate something. It is inherently self centered, in the way that's purely descriptive and not in the kind of superficial way that people mean when they complain about how their kids won't let other kids play with their GI Joes. The intent is to inject something foreign into an audience's environment, in the way that occasionally branches fall onto roadways and force people to swerve.

Imparting a cute note to a loved one is almost always communication. Subjecting that same loved one to a rote description of a tedious sales meeting over dinner is almost always a broadcast. Texting a friend to say, "Wow, X-Men: First Class was totally unreal; Kevin Bacon is just the most love-to-hateable Sebastian Shaw you could ever muster, and I think you'd love it, and you ought to go check it out this weekend if you have time!" is communication. Posting the latest OK Go video on a friend's wall because you're thinking, "Wow, I love being known as the kind of person who listens to OK Go, and I want to be seen as the person who discovered this new thing, and I want someone else to think fondly of me because of my exquisite connoisseurship!" is broadcasting. Literature and art had better be communication if they're worth anything at all. Advertising had better be broadcasting if the agency who produced it wants to win another contract. Television news used to be communication but now is very much a broadcast. Etc.

December 13, 2007, marked the very first day you could shove whatever you felt at a given moment into a kind of extemporaneous-broadcasting-capsule and fire it out into space for all to see. Your audience was no longer someone , but everyone. You were no longer having a conversation; you were building an image. Twitter continued this trend by no longer requiring the people who opened your 'capsule' to even be your 'friends,' people in whose life you agreed to participate by mutual investment and arrangement (even if it was only a single click). Now they were merely eyes behind the glass, quite literally 'followers', an anonymous audience consigned ever to see and--by your good graces, if they were lucky -- maybe, possibly, eventually be heard.

To be clear, I'm not saying this is a bad thing (please, launch your Twitter up and follow me right now @zdch, for crying out loud!). I have written on this very website about the tremendous impact social media has had on grassroots social change. Our digital lives -- our social media selves -- are every bit as complex, multifaceted, and morally-ambiguous as our real ones.

But they're much less intimate than they used to be.

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The essential challenge of the modern world is to figure out how to wade through all the noise and endeavor to create meaning from experience. Everyone who listens knows this, and they try to accomplish it in different ways. Some of them, like mashup maestro Girl Talk, dive headlong into that maelstrom of noise and try to tackle it all at once -- wrestle with it, digest it, tear it apart and piece it back together into something greater than it was before. Others, like phenomenally successful author and serial overachiever Timothy Ferriss, take a step back from the maelstrom and build themselves without it -- 'designing a lifestyle' through 'selective ignorance.'.

Me? I watch films. I have conversations. I design and play games. I drink beer and sing karaoke. I teach classes. And I read, and I write, and when I read and write I hunger desperately to share 'the secrets and the memories we cherish in the deep' with other people, to read the letter, to hear her music, to communicate with rather than broadcast at. To be intimate.

To realize that 'sending a Private message' is impossibly, impossibly, impossibly more than 'sharing a post and disabling reshare'.

To, in a word, empathize.

Please, read the letter.

Please, hear the music.

 

Follow Zac Hill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zdch