My Friends Are in My Pocket: Why the Digital Age Isn’t Ruining Interpersonal Interaction

Children are raised being told to respect their elders, and not all of them do it, that’s true. On the other hand, nobody tells any elders to respect children, teens, and young adults either. So there’s a constant tension among all the age groups, and for some reason, few from any of the groups try to understand those from the others (hmm, sounds like how all conflict gets started, doesn’t it?).

One of the things that the oldest of the still-alive generations don’t understand is the young people’s addiction to technology. The claim is that young adults have lost the ability to interact face to face, and that teenagers and younger children will never learn it to begin with. Such an assertion is, of course, exaggerated, but, since computers are obviously not going away, and since teenagers and young adults will be running the world soon, I’d like to cast a little different light on how we view relationships in the digital age.

Let me just set the scene for you on what digital interaction looks like in my life. My closest and most trusted friend lives in Austin, Texas (and, in fact, is getting ready to move to the United Arab Emirates), so we conduct our entire friendship via text messaging and online chat. My next-closest friend lives four blocks away from me but is married and has two children, so we also conduct most of our friendship via text and online chat. I use Facebook and Twitter and Gmail, as well as a host of other websites where you are required to have an account and profile of some sort in order to interact. Twitter, though, is the one I use the most.

Interestingly enough, Twitter seems to be the one the older generations understand the least. They don’t understand the point of it, or the layout, or the functions (where is the “like” button?). But Twitter has become, for me, a place to find people to go to baseball games with, or watch baseball games with, or – at the very least – talk baseball with while we each sit on our respective couches at home. Certainly, baseball is a niche interest, and it is the foundation on which most of my Twitter friendships are built, but it is not the only niche community out there that Twitter facilitates.

The best part about Twitter is that I can show up as frequently or infrequently as I want, and someone else is always there. If I’m busy, I don’t have to post. If I’m twiddling my thumbs in a waiting room or standing in a very long line, I can send 10 tweets in the span of 15 minutes and nobody tells me to shut up. Twitter serves as a diary I keep online that 523 people have signed up to read. So, it’s like this blog, but way more popular.

Recently, I was in San Francisco. I went there for vacation. I also utilized my Twitter connections for a couple of things while I was there: 1) to score free (and really sweet, really close-behind-home-plate) Giants tickets, and 2) to meet up with a fellow tweep I had interacted with over the course of the baseball season. Twice during the days that he and I hung out, I was introduced to a couple of elderly-type people he knows, and both of those people wanted to know how he and I met, and both of those people were told the same thing: Twitter. And both of those people launched into a diatribe about not understanding young people these days. (Coincidentally, both times this happened, my friend happened to be engaging a restroom, so I was left alone to defend the honor of young people everywhere to two complete strangers.)

Oddly enough, both also had stories about being in restaurants and observing young couples who were “obviously on dates” sit there and “text each other” on their phones instead of talk face to face. I tried not to laugh, even though it was uncanny that this scenario played itself out almost exactly the same way but with different characters twice in the span of just a couple of days (or maybe San Franciscans just aren’t as unique as they think they are, who knows). When I found myself in this conversation the second time, I wondered if either scenario had actually been observed, or if it was simply an iteration of the “sister’s friend’s cousin’s stepbrother’s nephew” vicarious game of telephone we all know so well.

I also considered pointing out both times that the observed couples were probably not texting each other at all but were texting other friends, or were tweeting. But that didn’t seem like it would help the cause of the young people, so I simply smiled and nodded and continued to listen, all the while appreciating the irony of the fact that these two older gentlemen found it acceptable to deplore young people and their addiction to the internet to the face of a young woman they both claimed they were delighted to have met, and whom they both either hugged or kissed on the cheek at some point, and who was only standing there talking to them in those moments because of the internet.

As to the claim that young people don’t know how to interact face to face anymore, I find the exact opposite to be true. In fact, I even assert that having the internet as a buffer actually helps some people who struggle with interpersonal interaction do it better face to face. Take Twitter, for example. We use it to share our thoughts and experiences with whomever might be reading. My profile says 523 people are reading my tweets, but I know that there are not 523 people who read every tweet I post, and most of the time I just pretend that nobody is reading it, which allows me to share things about myself that I might choose not to share if I spent time over-analyzing exactly who might be reading. (Those who have seen my Twitter feed are probably wondering if, in fact, there even is anything I would not share, and I assure you, there is.)

But, though all of my followers do not read every single tweet, there are many who see each tweet, and some who respond. And sometimes it leads to engaging dialogue, and sometimes it leads to other tweeps who see us going back and forth hopping into the conversation too. Sometimes it devolves into an argument, but most of the time it’s a good and positive thing. I spent the full six months of the 2013 baseball season building up my Twitter community with fellow baseball fans (mostly Royals fans, but there are a fair number from other fanbases too; my San Francisco friend, for instance, is part of the Giants fanbase).

As I was doing this, and having engaging conversations with people I liked a lot on Twitter, I was also constantly searching for partners to attend Royals games with. I’m not a season ticketholder, but I set a silly – and lofty – goal for myself at the beginning of this past season: Attend one game per home series. Did you read that right? Not homestand. Home series. For every team that the Royals played at Kauffman this year, I wanted to be at a minimum of one game per opponent. This meant I went to a lot of games, and it meant I ran out of game-going partners early in the season. My existing friends were happy to go to games with me on occasion, but nobody could or wanted to go as often as meeting my goal necessitated.

So I took to Twitter. Over the course of the season, I met, attended games, or tailgated with more than 20 of my friends from Twitter. (I just did an unofficial count off the top of my head and came up with 23, but it’s possible I left out a few. But even if I didn’t, 23?! Wow. That’s kind of awesome.) Since it was spread over the course of an entire season, I didn’t realize the number had climbed that high, but I did make it clear early and often that I intended to meet as many tweeps as possible at Kauffman, and I found plenty of people willing to meet.

And guess what? We did not find our conversation lacking or stalling out when we did meet up. We’d all already gotten to know each other on Twitter, so it was no big deal to hang out in person. We had things to talk about and updates to inquire about. And, if the flow of conversation ever did start to slow down, we had the Royals (and Royals Twitter) to fall back on because, you see, there are a lot of us, and the ones who are vocal and participatory in the Royals Twitter community all know one another. We all follow and interact with one another, so it’s like we’re a huge group of friends already, even the ones who haven’t met up in person.

Twitter provides us a place to share our lives with one another. Because of Twitter, I know that certain people have recently entered parenthood for the first time (shout-out to baby Parker and baby Cale). Also because of Twitter, I shared that entrance into parenthood too, and all the frustrations about in-laws, and insensitive doctors and nurses, and how long the labor process was lasting (yes, it was the fathers I was following, in both cases). Because of Twitter, I know that a fellow tweep experienced the death of her young son just a few years ago. Because of Twitter, I know that someone is dealing with the medical implications involved with having a thyroid tumor. Because of Twitter, I know that a friend is battling what is likely bipolar disorder, but he’s unable to be diagnosed and get medical help because he lacks health insurance. Because of Twitter, I know that a friend recently reconnected with a brother and sister he never knew he had. (And, that brother and sister found him because of Twitter.)

Because of Twitter, I can have a bad day, tweet about it, and instantly be met with all manner of replies varying from sarcasm to distraction to comfort. Because of Twitter, I can ask hard faith questions and enter a dialogue with people who wonder the same things. Or with people who don’t. Because of Twitter, I am connected to people of all different kinds, many of them very different from myself (as opposed to Facebook, where I’m mostly connected to people who have very similar backgrounds and contexts to mine). My Twitter friends know me. They know who my favorite baseball teams are (AL and NL); they know who my favorite individual players are; they know who my favorite college basketball team is, and they know who my NFL team is; beyond the world of sports, they know I have an adorable and chubby niece; they know I have a black dog, and that his name is Soren; they know that this past baseball season has coincided with my training for my first marathon, and they know that I mostly only trained during Royals games so I could listen; they know that I’m an editor, that I love words and books and grammar; they know I’m a Christian.

These people are my friends, and Twitter allows me to connect with them in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, late at night, at home, at work, out and about running errands, or stuck waiting somewhere. I derive joy from my interactions on Twitter. So, yes, I will be one of the people who stands in a long line and looks at a phone instead of those around me. Some people think that means we are self-absorbed, but my attention to my phone doesn’t mean I don’t care about people. It means just the opposite, in fact. I do care about people, and I’m using my phone to engage them.

Because of digital interaction, I have more friends than I’ve ever had in my entire life. And I don’t say that lightly. For me, friend is a heavy word, carrying weight and obligation and meaning. Some people think they have 1,012 friends because that’s what their Facebook says. This is not that. I have 523 Twitter followers, but I don’t have 523 friends. But I do have friends and people I have come to care about solely because the internet and Twitter exist, and those people are larger in number than they would be without digital interaction. And I care about them, and I know they care about me. And when it does work out for us to get together in person, we do it, and we have fun. (If you don’t believe me, you should come sometime when I hang out with some of them, and I’ll show you.)

So that’s why I don’t like to be without my phone. To be without my phone is to be without my friends.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “My Friends Are in My Pocket: Why the Digital Age Isn’t Ruining Interpersonal Interaction

  1. b longfellow

    great title. and your thesis appears proven.
    i think any criticism i have of social life in the digital age is rooted only in a buried fear that eventually i will be left out entirely.

  2. Pingback: The Existentialist Considerations Inspired by the Movie HER | A Literary Illusion

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