When I was little, I remember my mom getting a message on her answering machine from one of our neighbors, Mrs. Hartman (whom my brothers and I lovingly called Mrs. Fartman). It turned out that Mrs. Fartman wasn't happy with my mother, who hadn't responded to her last two messages.
"Fine -- I get it, Leah!" Mrs. Fartman said, her voice a Roseanne-like shriek. "If you don't want to talk to me anymore, then so be it!"
Click. End of friendship.
When I asked my mom (who was in the process of raising three devil children, myself included) if she cared about losing one of her friends, she offered a tired sigh and said, "Not really. I'm busy and didn't have time to call her back. If she can't understand that, then what am I supposed to do? Maybe that's just something she has to work out herself."
Twenty years later, a lot has changed. Facebook is putting everyone's face online multiple times over, distracting us from the pleasures of books. Tiny tweets zap back and forth across the world at a rate that's impossible for anyone to keep up with, unless you're Anne Marie-Slaughter. We have separate online profiles for work and dating that we use when we're at work and sometimes even while on a date, if it's that bad. Household answering machines are pretty much obsolete when mobile phones put us in constant contact with one other on a 24/7 basis.
And to top it all off, there are a whole lot more Mrs. Fartmans out there than there ever were before.
I'm reminded of Mrs. Fartman each time someone tells me, "You didn't answer my call," or "You didn't respond to my Facebook message," or "You didn't retweet my tweet," or "You said you were gonna be on Skype," or "Didn't you read my blog?" There's too much going on at once, and I can't keep it all focused. And that's not like me -- I used to be very focused. Extremely focused. So focused that I had a teacher in elementary school who used to call me Mr. Focused. But now my diligence has nothing to show for itself in this new digital age where communication is constant and feelings are so easily wounded.
I've tried to be honest with others about my online communication style, but people in the virtual sphere don't respond well to the truth. You either have to stop talking to them all together as if they don't exist, or you have to make something up that's absolutely ridiculous just to satisfy them. Take, for instance, a recent Facebook conversation I had with an acquaintance.
Facebook friend: "Where have you been? I tried calling you, but you didn't answer."
Me: "Sorry. I wasn't in the mood."
Facebook friend: "Why not?"
Me: "I needed me time."
Facebook friend: "☹"
End of conversation. End of (Facebook) friendship.
What I should have said was something like, "I can't, I'm choking on a piece of rotten cheese" or "No-can-do, my parakeet has just had a heart attack and died," (the later being a double lie, since I never had a parakeet to begin with). Instead, I took the "higher road" of honesty, but where did that get me?
Friendships aren't the only relationships affected negatively by social media. I recently went on a date with a partner of several months who started quizzing me -- not about history or politics, but about his blog. The conversation ended with me admitting that I had never in fact read his blog. Said revelation caused his face to redden and his jaw to collapse -- the same expression he might have gotten had I punched him in the nose or flicked his grandmother's ear. Needless to say, the relationship came to a swift end.
Then there's the whole liking phenomenon. When people like something of mine on Facebook, I find it nice. Or I used to find it nice, until I discovered that there was an unspoken rule that if someone likes something of yours, you're supposed to like something back of theirs, even if you don't like anything of theirs at all. It's like someone coming to your home and telling you that you have nice curtains. They can't just expect you to go to their home right away and tell them that they have nice curtains too, especially not when their curtains are ugly. Ugly curtains do not merit compliments, people!
I know people have stopped following me on Twitter because I haven't followed them back. People on LinkedIn have severed the virtual chains that once bound us because I haven't endorsed the professional qualifications they already say they have. And I know I've been defriended on Facebook for going too long without replying to messages or for not writing "happy bday" on walls. I get it. Really I do.
But I don't. Really. #notintheleastbit.
In the NGO world, we're taught to communicate with online donors as if we're having a real life conversation. If they say something to you, you have to respond in kind. In a normal conversation, you can't just stand there, silent, when someone is speaking directly to you. If you do that, people might think you've gone bonkers. Apparently, that holds true in the virtual sphere as well.
But I'm here to insist that it doesn't! Virtual conversations don't operate the same way as actual conversations. Sometimes they're faster, and sometimes they're slower. In one-on-one conversations, our attention is supposed to be undivided, while online our choices are infinite. You might say hello to me, but instead of saying hello back I could be writing a dissertation, buying an ant farm, planting a garden made of virtual strawberries, teaching myself pilates, observing my hair's evolution over a decade of photos, or watching a video of a cat dancing to the Macarena. The fact that I don't say hello doesn't mean I don't want to. It just means I'm distracted. "Busy," my mom might say, without the time to write back.
Sigh. I doubt that any of the Mrs. Fartmans out there will ever understand my grievances, but if they can't, what am I supposed to do? Maybe that's just something they have to work out themselves.