I’ve put things behind me before.
And, after misunderstandings or social blunders with my friends, part of being a higher-level communicator is working through things and starting fresh. We turn over new leaves every day and within our various groups of friends, and are given grace. But it’s harder to forgive and forget when your misunderstandings stare you in the face, and are digitally archived and always accessible.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about communication accessibility in the context of friendship building in our digital age. I’ve been thinking about how we connect to each other and how the different mediums of communication (both digital and interpersonal) build friendships in their unique ways. Our human relations are built on interactions and the way that we interact has changed more in the past 5 years than it has in the past 50 years. We text message each other instead of actually talking and hearing each others voice. Emails have replaced letters and postcards and sometimes, I video chat with my friends in the same city, as it’s faster and more convenient then trekking across town for a quick conversation. But having actual face-to-face time is completely different than face-to-screen time (even if the spoken conversation is the same), and thus builds the relationship in a different way.
Think of your friends like onions. Communication theorists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor are responsible for conceiving the “Social Penetration Theory”. They liken our personalities to onions in depicting our multi-layered personalities and explain that through discourse with each other, we peel away layer after layer of personal information, moving from surface-social facts (like biographical info and cultural preferences) to deeper, more revealing information (ideas of self identity, religious views, deeply held fears). We socialize from the outside inwards.
Think about the day you met your best friend. Chances are you started on the outside first (“Hey, what’s your name”) before delving deeper (“What’s your biggest fear?”). For our own social safety, we let our guards down gradually to stave off humiliation while at the same time figuring out how to interact with someone new on-the-fly. All relationships have life cycles and we tend to ebb and flow between closeness and distance with the people around us. Friendships naturally fizzle out and people tend to move on to make way for new social growth. But what happens when you start to bottle up the sea of communication and save it for later? Does digital discourse make it harder to let go of things and move through the natural life cycle of communication? When we interact through our screens, how does it affect the friendship knowing that both parties could save the discussions for later review? How different is social forgiveness when everything is archived and never forgotten?
One idea that I’m currently working through is how digital communication throws a monkey wrench in this natural life cycle. Like modern embalming, most digital communication is perfectly preserved in our inboxes, so that we can revisit any conversation at the click of a button. As human beings, this makes sense as we tend to hold on to relics from our past to establish cultural identity, show the stripes of our experiences, or simply just to “remember the good ole’ days”. But as we go through the messy misunderstandings that come with friendship building and tuning into each other, Google (and with most other digital communication brokers) sits back and keeps score. In the years to come, are we to be burdened by ghosts of all of our past friendships staring at us from Facebook walls, Inboxes, Chat transcripts, and Twitter conversations?
I wonder about how things have changed, since the times of having a small group of close, in-the-flesh confidants (usually about 2-3) to now having a digital network of 1000+ online friends. Depths of your relationships aside, when everything is saved and squeezed into the same inbox (mixing a long email from your close friend with a mass message about an upcoming party), how do we sort things out? When our communications get muddled, is it harder to prioritize our relationships? Advertising superstar agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky touched this nerve with their “Whopper Sacrifice” campaign last year: Remove 10 friends from Facebook and get a free Whopper from Burger King. When we quantify our friendships digitally, is that what the exchange rate works out to? Gross fast food?
I’m still figuring things out and trying to find the right balance between a digital social life and a physical one. It’s impossible to renounce digital interactions these days, so I think a worthy goal is being conscious of both A) who we're talking to B) how we're talking to them and importantly C) where we're talking to them. I don't want to forget all of my secret handshakes.
How does that sound?