Friday, July 20, 2012

How technology ruined my friendships

Do you remember that scene from He's Just Not That Into You where Drew Barrymore's character goes on a tangent about why technology has for all intents and purposes destroyed the ease of dating in the modern world? She cites MySpace, text messages, email, etc. etc. for her troubles, claiming that "you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies."

Even though I've never had to deal with a break up via text, I've had my fair share of troubles due to many of the common mistakes that crop up when we rely too heavily on a form of interaction that is so impersonal, so noncommittal, yet so intimate and telling about our culture and ourselves.

A few years ago I was sitting around during winter break with nothing to do. I'd just gotten my wisdom teeth out and my friends were all busy or something (I can't remember why I was alone at home, but I was). I couldn't eat regular food, I could barely stand to listen to the television because I had such a strong throbbing pain in my head (I refused to take any painkillers harder than ibuprofen because they made me nauseous). The puzzle that my friends had given me as a gift to get me through the hours of pain post-surgery sat in my closet, but I refused to reduce myself to an invalid playing with simplistic toys.

So I pulled out a more complicated toy, my computer.

That winter I joined a website called Interpals which you would do well to never look up. While my intentions were honorable as I signed up one December afternoon, my experience would teach me that the most important relationships are the ones that are right outside your door, or just a phone call away.

When I started in on the world of Interpals, I was looking to have friends all around the world. That's the premise of the site - make shallow friendships with a bunch of people in various countries so if you ever decide to go backpacking through Europe or Asia or any of the other continents, you will have friends to show you around who speak the language or know the best restaurants and sights to see.

But I soon learned that the theory of these sites is in no way like the outcome. I was met with propositions and requests for romances, even people that creeped into the realm of pedophilia. Still, I walked away with a few friendships that have lasted several years, however distant they may be in geography and in length of time between conversations.

At the time I didn't think much of my decision to join a website like that. It was an innocent occupation of time, right? No harm in making friends from other countries. Even if others have wrongful intentions, you just weed out the unlikelies and make friends with those who are genuine and who you can perform safety background checks on.

Then today I started thinking about that scene from He's Just Not That Into You and how even in a situation that seems innocent and frivolous, we hold our emotions in the balance and make way for people to hurt us more easily because, at least in the case of Interpals or the internet in general, there's no societal protocol keeping us ethically grounded.

Because over time, relationships that are founded on inferior modes of interaction tend to wither and die. And unless the two people involved actually care at an equal level to keep things friendly and interactive, one person always ends up feeling like they're being rejected. Even if it isn't a romantic relationship.

I've never had this problem with my real friends, my in-person friends. If I've ever felt distant from them, it's been by physical proximity, not by lack of communication. That's where websites like Interpals go wrong. While they purport to create worthwhile friendships, and admittedly I've made some and I'm sure others have too, they also prey on the people who are the most vulnerable - those among us who are in most need of human interaction but perhaps lack the amount of it that we need.

Because of that emptiness, people turn to relationships inferior to the ones they have right next door and create something virtual that feels falsely stronger. The truth of internet friendships and relationships is that until they are grounded in something more concrete, there is no commitment involved. It can feel like talking to a wall, like sharing your soul with that wall and then walking away from it because that's all it was - a wall.

Even my friendships with people I've known for years in real life have been strained by technology. Not because they prevent us from interacting - in fact, it's the opposite - but because they prevent us from interacting in a way that isn't superficial.

Though we'd like to pretend that when we IM someone we're fully interacting with them, or when we email someone we're absorbed in the content we're composing, when we're doing these things chances are we have at least two or three other tabs open on Firefox or we're also IMing another person or two.

Unlike the loveliness that is letterwriting or phone calling, both exercises that require the utmost attention and devotion of time, the internet forces us to be multitaskers, and in being multitaskers we start to expect large quantities of friends, large quantities of interaction. When we don't get that, we grow bored. We long for more. We abandon what actually matters.

I struggled with letting go of Interpals because for a while the website made me feel like popularity was something I coveted. If I could make friends all over the world, somehow my network of cohorts felt stronger, even though in reality my friendships were growing weaker due to my distraction.

Now I like to think I care about knowing people who I have the potential to really grow and interact with in reality. Living in a virtual world has its simplicity and its ease, but it is also the surest way to feel lost, to feel rejected, to feel like you never have quite enough time to be the person you want to be.

Instead of writing to internet friends - of which I only have a good two or three now - I've spent my extra moments to interact with myself (I blog every night), my dad (in the evenings), my friends (on the weekends) and the rest of my family (whenever my schedule permits, which will increase as the summer closes). And I finally get why it's so important to treasure those relationships above everything else. They're the ones that will actually last, survive inside and outside the internet world and never be a source of petty drama, but rather real love.

So technology may have ruined my friendships, but in doing so it also taught me what the term really means. And maybe that's a lesson worth learning, even if there are some bumps along the way.

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