Essay: Susan Nguyen

Together but alone: How Technology Helps Us Fake Intimacy

Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Instagram, texting – the list of technological distractions so readily at our disposal is seemingly endless and oftentimes already at our fingertips. Consider my 5-minute walk from one class to another on Virginia Tech’s campus: I usually don’t have to look further than a few feet in any given direction in order to find some individual with a smartphone glued to their face. Since I am still an owner of that medieval device, the feature phone, I often find myself alone in a sea of smartphone users who are constantly checking their emails or updating their Facebook statuses while I awkwardly twiddle my thumbs.

Without a doubt, technology has had positive effects on our ability to stay in contact with others. We now have more control over how we communicate than ever before – we can connect almost instantly, continuously, and even across multiple channels at once if we so choose. Yet with all of these convenient technologies less than an arm’s length away, why is it that my peers and other members of the Millennial Generation still feel so dissatisfied and even lonely?

While technology, such as cell phones and the internet, allows for constant digital contact, this does not mean that people are developing closer, sustainable relationships or more meaningful conversations – things that people innately desire. Instead, I find that it is just the opposite for the most part. With all of the available technology we have that is meant to help us better stay in touch or better connect, we end up dabbling in a broad range of them, resulting in more superficial interactions across each medium. For example, most of my peers would much rather text, Facebook message, or Snapchat than call someone. While these activities can certainly prove useful in respective situations, in most cases a simple phone call would more efficiently convey information in a quick and clear manner. However, I will admit that it is certainly possible for people to form serious relationships over the internet – people can and have – but I firmly believe that this is a relatively small amount compared to the larger collective.

So why don’t people call anymore? Probably for the same reason that face-to-face communication is dwindling in popularity compared to interaction over various social media sites. Nowadays, emailing or Tweeting at someone is not only considered easier but it is also seen as less intimidating, which is a major part of its allure. I think this fear and anxiety that speaking to someone in a real context may lead to embarrassment or unpredictability is at the heart of why my generation has been relying so heavily on technology to support our interactions and even worse – to supplement the positive feelings that we once only associated with human interactions.

Every real life interaction or relationship includes risks, whether it is the risk of rejection, coming across as foolish for saying the wrong thing, or misinterpreting another’s words. In her Ted Talks video titled “Connected, but Alone?” Sherry Turkle argues that “human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding and we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that we sacrifice is conversation for connection.” As Turkle claims, technology allows us to edit ourselves. In our emails or text messages, we can plan out exactly what we wish to say before we ever hit send. In our social media endeavors, we choose how we wish to convey ourselves through our pictures, our statuses, our shared links, and our videos. Technology allows us to share only our best parts and we take full advantage it. As Turkle said, “we turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control.” After all, the carefully constructed online personas that we create and disseminate do not truly express who we are. Instead, they express who we wish we were.

While the stakes may be much higher in face-to-face communication, I believe the resulting payoffs have the potential to be much higher as well. Most people who are anxious of social interaction purposefully avoid it and instead turn to impersonal forms of communication. However, by avoiding it they never give themselves the chance to confront the source of their anxiety, which means that they also don’t get the chance to overcome it. Instead, their fears just escalate as they continue to build it up in their minds. Since human interaction can’t be evaded forever, this means that the anxious individual is less prepared for how to act when it does occur. The resulting uncertainty and apprehension only serves to reinforce and add to their fear.

In avoiding interaction, people typically turn to technology in the form of the internet. The internet holds infinite possibilities to connect with others but only if we wish to. Furthermore, we usually have the ability to hide behind our anonymity on online forums or message boards. Even with social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we can choose to create an account that has no identifying information if we want to remain mysterious. I know quite a few friends who have created fake parody accounts on Twitter just for the fun of it.

Through social media especially, people begin to obsessively check for updates or the like. With each new Facebook “like” or Twitter “retweet,” we unconsciously experience a dopamine rush that makes us feel good. But what happens when our desire for the instant gratification of the internet replaces our desire for intimacy? In looking to experience this feeling again, we stop turning to other humans quite as much because our brains register an increase in dopamine regardless of whether we received it from a Facebook notification or a real life interaction with another person.

Personally, I think Facebook is a great way to keep in touch as I grow older and my friends grow further and further apart in distance. I enjoy Twitter because I occasionally think I have something interesting or funny enough to share with my followers. I use other media sites such as Pinterest or Tumblr when I want to do something mindless in order to keep myself entertained and these sites even have online communities attached to them although I’ve never truly utilized them. I text because I assume most people my age prefer this over phone calls and truthfully, I do find texting to be more forgiving because I can mull over what I want to say before I say it. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with my usage of technology in order to connect with others, but I still think it’s important to think about why I do so.

My main reason for using these social media sites is in order to stay constantly connected with others – this stems from a fear of missing out and of feeling lonely if I don’t know what is going on in everyone else’s life on my Facebook newsfeed or Twitter timeline, etc. However, in attempting to not miss out on anything, I probably do miss out on plenty of things occurring in my surroundings. I may not notice how wonderful the sky on any particular day is because I’m too busy looking at my phone and concerned about responding to an email or checking my follower count. Also, in attempting to dispel my feelings of loneliness through social media, my loneliness is actually exacerbated because I am barraged with images and statuses of what others are doing and how seemingly great their lives are while I, in all likelihood, am just sitting in my bed scrolling down the web page.

I think most people can probably relate to my experiences with social media. One contributing factor to the loneliness that people are trying to rid themselves of through technology is the feeling that they do not have a voice. Luckily, with online forums and sites like Twitter, it is easier and easier to have an automatic audience. When it comes down to it, I think that our use of social media is at least 50 percent about ourselves and our own sense of vanity – it is not purely about connecting with new strangers or keeping up with old friends.

Nowadays, people are afraid to be alone. They are so afraid to feel disconnected that they cannot sit still and relax for five minutes without going on their phone or laptops in order to check up on social media or even to text someone. I see this all the time as I walk around campus with people who are waiting in line for food or waiting for the bus – in the few minutes that they have nothing to do, they automatically check if there is anything new going on with someone else. However, in order to avoid feelings loneliness, people turn to technology to connect with people instead of directly interacting with them face-to-face. This, in and of itself, limits the intimacy in that interaction because it is being mediated by a machine that doesn’t allow you to express your own/get the other person’s full range of emotions. As Tuckle said, “we need to listen to each other… including the boring bits. Because it’s when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other.”

By continuously turning to technology to mediate our interactions with others, I think we eventually begin to consider this as the “norm.” Personally, I find it incredibly ironic that we, for the most part, wish to experience intimacy and to be vulnerable with others yet we are so afraid of doing so that we resort to hiding behind technology. Not only does this restrict our relationships to others, I think it also affects our relationship with ourselves. If we can’t be alone for a few minutes without feeling lonely and turning to others or to technology, what does that say about ourselves?