Huebner: Not Your Mother’s Tech Talk

A lack of digital authenticity degrades long-distance friendships.

by Julia Huebner | 10/27/16 12:16am

I’ve come to the realization that I’ve been a shoddy friend.

More specifically, I’ve been a shoddy long-distance friend. It took rereading a syllabus, checking out a library book (gasp!) and being a college freshman away from home to realize it.

First, the syllabus: when I read professor Dennis Washburn’s “Read the World” syllabus on the first day of fall term, I was taken aback. Nestled with the course description and learning objectives was a strange header: Washburn’s email policy.

“I welcome face-to-face conversations with you,” he wrote. “No absences will be excused over email. No extensions will be granted over email. If you have classes that conflict with my office hours, you are welcome to email me to arrange in-person meetings, or to arrange phone conversations with me.”

I smiled. How New England, I thought patronizingly while refreshing Facebook absentmindedly. Washburn’s policy, while principled, seemed inconveniently traditional. While face-to-face interactions are undoubtedly more nuanced than digital ones, isn’t it simply more efficient and thus better to conduct business over email?

Sherry Turkle would disagree. Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” Last week, I watched the abridged version of the argument in her paired TED talk, “Connected, but Alone?”. Afterward, I walked to Baker Berry Library and checked out her book.

I had expected Turkle’s criticism of human interaction in the monsoon of 21st century technology to be another finger-waving warning that “anything you put on the internet stays there forever!” We all know this; we also know, as we’ve been told countless times, that social media is constructed to show someone’s highlight reel, that it’s easy to hide behind a screen and that time spent on technology depletes what little time we have for precious face-to-face interactions. We know that technology can be both a springboard and a crutch.

But what I didn’t realize is the extent to which all of my technological connections are filtered. It’s not just Instagram photos that are retouched, edited, censored until disconcertingly flawless; it’s my emails, my texts and my instant messages. “Whenever one has time to write, edit and delete,” Turkle argues in Alone Together, “there is room for performance.” Additionally, there is room for time: time to craft a witty text, time to proofread my thoughts and time to appear just a tad funnier, smarter and a million other superlatives than I am.

Is Turkle right? Although I know that my loosely termed Facebook “friends” and Instagram followers see Superlative Julia, do my true friends outside of Hanover see a flattened Julia, too?

If they do, it’s because I perpetuate it. When friends bring up personal problems via digital media, I ask the same questions, offer the same support and posit the same advice as I do in-person. But when I’m running late to class, earning a subpar grade on a paper and losing my room key, it’s a whole lot easier to text back “Everything’s great, thanks!” to “How’s college so far???”

I’ve sent and received the above text more times than I can count. Since we packed our bags and parted ways, my Chicagoan friendships have gone from nuanced to flat. I’ve gone from noticing the little things in their replies to texting impersonal check-ins. And while the ability to check in with friends is an unbelievable advantage of modern technology, two-second “how are you” texts are thoughtful but not really probing. When my phone lights up with a “how’s everything?” from a girlfriend at Princeton University, I don’t reply with a vulnerable and lengthy text detailing the good, the bad and the ugly of freshman fall, even though I know she would listen to every word. If I do type out an epic about how everything really is, it’s tantalizing to edit myself down to the noncommittal — emotional baggage is backbreaking, so it’s best to appear “chill.”

Thus, my long-distance friendships are still friendships, but friendships “that can always be interrupted,” according to Turkle.

Honestly, I don’t want to be interrupted. And I don’t want to be the interrupter. I want to stop saying “sorry, didn’t see your text!” hours later because we all know that’s garbage. My few deep friendships from home are too important for me to check off with a check-in text.

I realize that I haven’t always been there for my closest friends as I navigate the steep learning curve of transitioning into college. I can do better.

So I might try letter writing. Although handwritten letters may seem archaic in the age of texting, writing a letter is purposeful: it requires forethought and a time commitment. Rather than antiquated, I regard my friends who write handwritten letters as downright classy.

I might leave voicemails, as so few friends actually pick up the phone. But at least voicemails convey tone, are detailed and are authentic, unlike texting. Even a game of phone tag allows you the pleasure of hearing an old friend’s voice.

Or I might adopt Washburn’s email policy.

“I welcome face-to-face conversations with you,” I’ll declare. “No lame apologies will be excused over text. No smoothed-over appearances of “chill” will be accepted over Facebook Messenger. If you have insanely busy schedules that conflict with my own, you are welcome to email me to arrange in-person meetings, or to arrange phone conversations with me.”

Or maybe a long, uninterrupted FaceTime call will do.