The Internet is such an intrinsically ingrained facet of our culture that many of us cannot fathom the possibility of a life without it, even if we do very well remember a time before the selfie stick, before Facebook posts, before a man could be judged (and possibly lose his job) over his Twitter feed. We have heard many of the downsides: We are more selfish now, more self-absorbed. We don’t live in the moment, let alone enjoy it. Every single one of our movements is recorded, photographed, chronicled in sound bites. We feed off self-validation; we are a generation required to perform.
In a culture where a camera and a Wi-Fi connection, we are told, are as essential to functioning day to day as our vital organs, it seems personal connections are now regarded as perfunctory. Having relationships and even meeting people online still has a stigma attached to it. None of us would actually meet any of these people, correct? You can just as easily swipe left, as Tinder has so crucially taught us.
How then can you explain caring so deeply for someone you’ve never even met?
The tools we have at our disposal are just as capable of strengthening our capacities for social interaction as they are at isolating us. They just toss the role of immediacy into the equation. Perhaps emails, instant messages, Skype conversations, liking each other’s photographs and videos on Instagram or reading Twitter feeds might lack the intimacy of a letter from a pen pal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold the same power to captivate us. Simply being afforded the opportunity to communicate more easily doesn’t remove the thrill of exchanging ideas, of sharing similar interests and passions, of laughing, of reminiscing, of finding synchronicity and solidarity in life while living in an era so commonly derided for being cold, so often painted as being detached from the simplicities and sensibilities of the sound of a human voice in close proximity.
I like to think I am a better person because of Caitlin and I like to think she feels the same way about me, though we have yet to make the transition from the digital world into the real. She is in Canada, the Waterloo-Kitchener area to be exact, whereas I am in New York.
We both lived and breathed cinema. It seemed fate that we would meet each other on a message board where we could discuss Roman Polanski, Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude, Kubrick’s eccentricities and assorted horror films as long as we wished. Almost as soon as we clicked (with each other, not on links), we found ourselves sharing our hopes and dreams for the future, our doubts and fears, with increasing regularity.
We walked down memory lane. She told me about her older sister, who had lost her life to cancer at a young age. I learned about her younger sister, with whom she has a wonderful relationship, as different as they may be. Caitlin eschewed the conventional, though her background seemed the picture of convention. She has been fortunate, gifted with a free spirit, never without the love and support of a close-knit and devout family. I, in turn, told her about my upbringing: the fiercely compassionate and loving mother, the goddess of a grandmother, the shaky adolescence, the fractured ties with my extended family, growing up gay and having a penchant for self-medicating.
I think we found each other in our uncertainty: the shitty jobs, the mutual dissatisfaction with the college experience. We laughed and traded work stories. I looked forward to her responses, always, and felt a thrill course through me the first time we ever spoke on the phone. When I had my heart broken, I’d tell her. When I sensed her growing ever glummer in the months before she left her soul-sucking office job, when I knew she’d have something to tell me about a shitty boyfriend, she’d drop a message into my inbox almost as soon as I would think of contacting her. I don’t think I would have eventually hopped onto Facebook with as much vigor as I have if it wasn’t for her: It was simply another, more immediate way for us to connect.
I have noticed something about us: We have never—not once—had a conversation, nor we held a kangaroo court, to allow ourselves to construct, designate, let alone fortify a distinction between real or virtual friendship. We have not felt the need to define ourselves.
Caitlin eventually met her fiancé, Stephen. I know him, though I haven’t met him in the flesh either. He happens to also post on a message board we frequent. I’ve had plenty of conversations with him on cinema and on literature. Nice guy, great guy. Caitlin has spent a lot of time here in the United States and he’s spent a lot of time in Canada doing their best to make it work. I see them defying the odds and know that truth is stranger than fiction. Look at the three of us, still in our little triangle, still involved in each other’s lives, still bitching over Meryl Streep’s third Oscar win. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
I hope to meet them both before their wedding day. I hope that Caitlin and I can see each other and spend time together. There was a time when she, on her way back from another trip to Tennessee, had an hour’s layover at JFK. We both vetoed the idea: We both owed it to the other not to rush. Finances and the many upheavals of life have gotten in the way. That will thankfully not be the case forever.
Social media has been revolutionary in its impact and ability to bring people who share common passions and values together. The appeal, for many, is indeed that it removes the risk of being rejected outright. This is also easily misconstrued: Critics will tell you that we’ve stopped taking risks. That our generation is much more apprehensive about just going out, breathing in the beauty of the earth, and mingling. They are correct to a degree: We are not truly living and observing when buried in our phones and devices all the time. But we aren’t living if we don’t adapt to changes within the social sphere and make them work for us either.
We forget that the Internet age is still in its infancy. We forget that in a hundred years, people will look back on us and wonder how we managed with Mark Zuckerberg while at the same time finding the concept of dial-up absolutely beyond all avenues of human comprehension. We forget that we are living in an exciting time precisely because so much of what we can learn is available at our fingertips. It is easy to take anything for granted when it is so easily accessible. It is easy to become numb to its power and its complexity. Most of all, we forget that our relationship with the Internet is not dissimilar to our relationships with each other: They both require a lot of work.