Yesterday while running, I listened to yet another discussion on NPR sparked by the article in the Sunday New York Times Style section earlier this month in which a large photo depicted a family of four, all sitting together on a couch but each engaged individually with some form of electronic equipment. Again and again, the question seemed to circle back to this one: Okay, this family is all wired in and focusing on their individual online activities, but what exactly has been lost, if anything?
Well, most adults who remember a time when communication was primarily non-electronic can answer this somewhat by rote. Electronic communication – whether email, Tweets, or blogs – lack the nuance of spoken interaction. Humor and other aspects of emotion get lost in translation. The very reason for emoticons is to try to bridge the difficulty in conveying intonation and inference through the on-screen, printed word. We craft keyboard characters into smiles, winks and frowns just in case what would have come through in our voices were we speaking gets lost in the written word.
But it occurred to me as I listened to the discussion that there’s another aspect to it as well. Many of us have learned the hard way -- through personal experience, retold anecdotes, or stories raised to the level of urban myth -- that tact and vigilance are necessary when writing emails and other forms of electronic correspondence. In short, it’s dangerous to commit anything to any electronic medium if you wouldn’t be comfortable seeing it enter viral distribution.
Which is a fine message as far as reminding people to exercise tact, but prompts a corollary question: So if we’re all communicating electronically, what happens to all the discussions we dare not have through the written word?
This is not an abstraction to me. One evening last week, I stopped by the public library to return a book and ran into my friends Amy and Jean. Jean and I got caught up in a discussion about something that had happened in our third-graders’ circle of friends; Amy countered with a story about her kindergartener and a classmate; and soon the three of us, whispering next to the reference desk, were sharing the kind of personal stories about our own pasts that girls normally tell only after midnight at slumber parties.
The reference librarian didn’t bat an eye as the three of us went on and on about awkward moments and painful heartbreaks from our middle school years, but I found myself still thinking about the conversation the next day. First of all, it just seemed so random. I don’t know either of them really well; had we not run into each other, all of us without kids or husbands, on this particular evening under these particular circumstances, we probably never would have shared any of those stories.
But more importantly, it was only through face-to-face interaction that a conversation like that would have happened; these certainly weren’t anecdotes you’d want to commit to written form.
So maybe, I though as I listened to the NPR discussion about cyber-intimacy, that’s what’s being lost: crazy random personal chit-chat among friends. Amy and Jean and I can certainly arrange a carpool or recruit art show volunteers by email, but confess as to the most embarrassing moment we remember from middle school? Not likely. Not in the least.
On the one hand, it’s a positive thing if electronic communication is starting to get old and familiar enough that fewer privacy faux pas are taking place. (Having discovered that my own 8-year-old sent an email containing an unkind sentiment about a classmate to six friends last month, I know firsthand that the principle of not writing incriminating emails is something that can’t be taught early enough.) On the other, if we’re learning to avoid potentially embarrassing stories or confessions in our electronic communications, and electronic communications are all we’re using, we’re passing up the chance for moments like the one I had at the library last week.
Talking about personal moments with casual friends isn’t an everyday occurrence for me, but it has led to some of my most interesting insights – and, of course, sharing an intimate story is a great way to fortify a budding friendship. So yes, something will potentially be lost if we get into the habit of passing up the chance for face-to-face discussion. I need only remember last week at the library – and the delicious feeling of kinship with two friends that transpired there – to understand how true this is.