September 27, 2018

RUSSELL | On Texting

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She wiggled her fingers through a clump of hair and pursed her lips. “It’s not like that.”

“What’s it like then?”

“He’s just…”

“Don’t ask any questions, just answer his.”

When you spend your Tuesday evenings “studying” at Starbucks, you grow so accustomed to eavesdropping on these types of conversations you forget you’re doing it. This time, I sat on a high up wooden stool, following intently as a pair of friends went back and forth about proper etiquette when texting a guy who quite clearly isn’t “the one.”

You don’t need an Ivy League education to ascertain that texting is a lot more complicated than it should be. When I get a late night iMessage from a friend I can only wonder whether it’s the result of a brainstorming session with a panel of trusted advisors or a drunk whim from Hideaway. But that’s the beauty of it. We thrive on ambiguity.

Last week, I sent some friends a quick survey about their phone usage. When asked to describe their texting style when conversing with a potential love interest, many noted that they respond slowly and intermittently. When asked to describe their style when texting someone they don’t like, the most popular answer was exactly the same: slow, intermittent answers.

This doesn’t happen by surprise, but by design. Maybe we’re all just slow texters looking for reasons not to change our ways.

But texting is more than just an opportunity to dodge the responsibility to make sense. It’s the landscape on which we build our social lives and our self image. And it’s a virtually uncorrupted medium; I get regular spam phone calls, see constant advertising on my social media feeds, fight a world of distractions in everyday in-person conversation, but in the text-o-sphere I decide who to talk to and proceed to generate content solely with them. No one else can edge their way into our conversation without our approval.

When my parents text, they make an event out of it. They don’t multitask, they don’t have other conversations, they don’t split their time between the virtual and physical worlds they simultaneously occupy. Instead, they sit, thinking through their messages and waiting for responses because for them, texting isn’t an autonomic function but a novelty that requires focus to understand and enjoy.

When you think about it, it’s odd that we don’t treat texting the same way. We have the opportunity to focus solely one the words of a friend in the most distraction-less medium known to man, but instead of cherishing this virtual alone time we make it into a distraction from our everyday lives.

After all, I can’t remember the last time I sent a “what’s up?” text and the response was “texting you.” We’ve made texting into nothing more than a nuisance that pulls us away from the exciting world around us.

Regardless of whether we multitask while doing it, texting has so altered the way we operate that it’s hard to remember the days before it. Long ago, every interaction, every conversation with a friend was a “had to be there” experience. We, ourselves, were “had to be there” experiences. To reminisce about the dumb conversations we’d had in the past, we actually had to try to remember the past. And still we’d undoubtedly get some of it wrong and argue about who said what. Now, we can look back. Also now, we can pause our conversations and ask for advice from others right in the middle of them.

As we continue to move to a text-based society, the excuse of “I was just caught up in the moment,” holds less and less water. We now have more license to not just think before we speak, but to do essentially anything we want before we respond to whatever others say to us.

I know I’m rambling. What’s more, I’m rambling about a decades old medium of communication. But I think we’re in a profound time. We’re at the age where the digital natives are the ones having kids. The tech-savvy, text-obsessed, fomo-ridden population isn’t the future of our world — we’re the present of our world. So I think it’s worth considering our attitudes toward the technologies that make us so distinct from the generations before us.

When I sat at Starbucks last week, my attention soon turned from the girls to the rest of the room. Most students had phones on their tables, and some had iMessage windows open on their Macbooks.

“I need to get off my phone and get to work,” one said.

Don’t we all.