To Reach Beyond Ourselves: The Internet and Intimacy
. . . As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
- Muriel Rukeyser
I used to be a proud and stubborn owner of a flip-phone. Convinced that social media was the cause of the worst aspects of culture, I resisted these new forms of communication at every turn—ignoring texts on principle, using an ugly photo for my profile picture (“I am not my avatar, and neither are you”), and generally looking down on people hunched over their screens.
Now, after having online conversations with a cute girl who has become my wife and landing a job as a social media manager, I quickly learned that good can come from these online spaces, and that finding a healthy approach to these spaces would meaning entering the fray—not stubbornly avoiding it.
More than just digital tabula rasa, these platforms actively shape the way we treat one another, and when we don’t examine these dynamics, we’re at the mercy of them. We need to reflect carefully on how these spaces shape us if we want to move away from trollish behavior and ideological gridlock and look for ways of speaking that can support our innate needs to be known, to share ourselves, and to connect to one another in lasting ways. I’m particularly thinking of three dynamics:
The words we use to describe digital spaces shape our assumptions. Words, ideas, perception, actions—they’re all knotted together inside us as a single thread. Words matter because they shape our perception and influence the way we treat one another. Words like “followers,” “content,” “influencer,” and “building a platform” are inherently neutral, but the problem comes when we see our relationships through them, when we elide the goals of relationship with the goals of a market. When these goals fuse together, people become means to an end, a commodity to collect while amassing influence or wealth or power.
Online communication increases the distance between our words and our bodies. When we communicate through digital spaces, the connections between body, geography, and speech shift and stretch, making it possible to text my family despite the mileage between our physical bodies. It’s a great gift to bypass those distances, but as words move further away from us, the nuances are lost in translation. This is why it’s easy to misread irony as cruelty or spiral into argumentative eddies—and why we often depend on emoji to express intent. Because of this disembodied intimacy, it’s easy to fill in the gaps with our own issues, projecting our fears and anxieties rather than imagining the complex humans on the other side of the screen.
Online communication decreases the distance between our words and our minds. When I read an essay by Thomas Merton or Pema Chödrön, their words drift from the page into my mind, quickly mingling with my own thoughts; when I listen to an episode of Reply All or On Being, their voices travel straight through my ears into my own inner life. Their words travel through digital spaces and bypass ordinary defenses and the negotiations of face-to-face interactions. This is why harassment is such a problem on Twitter. Coupled with anonymity and a lack of consequences, vicious words spread through public spaces and enter us without warning—leading to the dizzying and tragic results.
With these dynamics at play, we can’t afford to be thoughtless with our communicating. Struggling for ways of speaking that honor one another even as social ties are stretched to new limits will require patience, vigilance, and creativity—and a new guiding metaphor. Instead of seeing these online spaces as a crowded market of click-bait or race to build the largest platform, what if we looked for a new image for these shared spaces? An image that could help us understand these dynamics and use online space for the sake of relationships rather than the other way around?
The best guiding metaphor I’ve found is The Visitors, a nine-panel video installation by Ragnar Kjartansson. Set in a drafty mansion near the Hudson River, Kjartansson and his friends are separated into individual rooms, performing a single song guided only by the live audio of their music. A man plays piano in a dining room, a cellist plays along in an upstairs hallway, a bass player joins in from the library—all connected together through the performance.
What is so haunting about the installation is the way bodily distance and intimacy are trespassed and maintained. These people are alone in separate rooms, but as they play together, that solitude is both brought into stark relief and transcended. Gathered together in the video installation, there’s an unexpected intimacy that carries across the physical separation and the screens that present them. It’s a song that could only come from straining to listen for the other performers and trusting their work on the other side of each wall.
That art installation has given me a container to think constructively about the relationships between words and bodies and online space. Rather than viewing social media as bite-sized platforms where we use one another for our own ends, what if we imagined ourselves in different rooms of the same house? Yes, we may be separated geographically; yes, our words don’t always nonverbal nuance; yes, our words can slip past our defenses straight into our inner monologues. But what if we sought out people we could trust, people who strain to hear friends they can’t see so we can bring the same song to life?
To me, that’s a much more compelling vision of what’s possible online, and it’s more compelling than trying to stay above the fray or being drowned by it. God knows we need more people online straining to hear one another, searching out our limits and reaching beyond them. So next time we chat online, know that I’ll be on the other side with my ear to the wall, ready to sing.