September 8, 2009

Over-texted in Collegetown

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One night sophomore year I went to a house party, drank a few too many Genesee Lights, chugged olive oil on a dare, ate a dog biscuit (though, regrettably, not on a dare) and, to my soon-to-be-former fling (we’ll call her Julie), sent out a text message so humiliating that to this day my bludgeoned self-esteem is still recovering. That message, it pains me to recount, read the following and the following only:
During the immediate aftermath of “poop,” I spent my time in an ascetic state of reflection: trapping myself in the library, eating my meals alone, racking my brain for some clues into my psyche that night.
I never heard anything from Julie about the text, but I can only imagine the laughs she and her friends had at my expense. Even my own friends, when made aware of that night’s events, ridiculed me mercilessly. Incredulous, they asked me repeatedly why I had done it, as if the text had been an act of rational deliberation, a scheme I had devised to win back her then-dwindling affection (“Hmm, well, Julie loves poop, so this should work”).
I tried to explain to my bewildered friends that the text was the result of repeatedly failing to connect with Julie, of watching our relationship disintegrate and all the while realizing my inability to salvage anything from it. In this sense, I told my friends, the text was sort of a nihilistic gesture; nothing I say is going to save this, so I may as well say whatever the hell I want.
The more I thought about it, though — and I thought about it quite a lot — the more I began to wonder whether there wasn’t something more insidious at play here, something more fundamental to the state of our relationships as influenced by messaging technology.
We perceive of cell phones as connecting people to a degree never before possible. The entire world, after all, is now never farther away than a few dialed numbers. But is it possible, paradoxically, that this technology is distancing rather than uniting us? That the intimacy afforded by cell phones is making us lazy friends, not better ones?
By now, this intimacy is second nature to us. It’s impossible to sit through class without seeing someone furtively tapping messages to some never-very-remote interlocutor. Or to walk through Collegetown without spotting a gaggle of frosted-blonde sorority girls ambling along, iced coffees and Longchamp bags in tow, prattling among themselves while simultaneously BBMing some absent circle of acquaintances.
I don’t mean to pick on frosted-blonde sorority girls here — hardly. In fact, my point is just the opposite. Yes, my story is an extreme example. And sure, the cause-and-effect relationship between text and breakup isn’t perfectly linear. But if my “poop” text fiasco demonstrates anything it’s that Generation Y’ers of all stripes — even Dostoevsky-reading, cashmere sweater-wearing, literary theorist-referencing English majors — are vulnerable to the adverse effects of text messaging.
Of course, it’s easy to wax apocalyptic about nascent forms of technology. When writing first became popularized, people feared it would breed indolence, as students would no longer have to memorize folklore. Likewise, when Gutenberg invented the printing press, some scholars insisted that the new widespread accessibility of books would lead to intellectual languor. I won’t even enter into the panicked prognostications made for radio, television and video games; I’ll only note that they are many in quantity and few in prescience. At any rate, the sum of these points is this: almost every new form of technology has elicited dire warnings about severe supposed consequences. Needless to say, we’d be crazy to listen to all, or even most, of these warnings.
So why, then, should we worry about text messaging?
First, there’s the format and content of texting. I, for one, have always marveled at people’s ability to sustain these kinds of conversations, the ones constrained by character limits and micro-sized keyboards. I’m not convinced it’s possible to convey any information, ideas or opinions of substance through this constricting a medium.
Another disturbing verity of text messaging is that it, even more so than the phone, exempts people from — remember this? — actual face-to-face interaction. At the risk of sounding like an alarmist myself, I believe our relationships, thanks to text messaging, are becoming precariously unnatural. For example, I have a friend who, after learning at the end of spring semester that a girl was interested in him, embarked on a two-month texting relationship with the girl over the summer, having never once actually interacted with her in person. Now that they’re both back at school, they’re avoiding each other, both afraid of the awkwardness of their impending first meeting.
What’s most frightening about text messaging, though, is what made it so novel in the first place: the reality of being permanently connected to everyone all the time. While text messaging technology may ultimately prove to be a good thing, I’m not sure we’ve learned yet how to harness this newfound power. Until we learn, I say, we should be a bit more prudent with our communication.
Trust me — I’m still learning, too.