Virtual friends

Back in the days when we actually watched television shows at their scheduled times, Friends was the bomb. Its finale in 2004 was viewed by more than 50 million people, making it among the top watched television episodes in history and the top in that decade. We knew people whose social lives before that final episode worked around the day and time Friends aired. In doing this they eschewed the actual friends in favor of their imagined ones.

My late husband and I never watched more than three episodes during Friends ten years on the air. When at the time why we were so disinterested, we’d explain that we were too preoccupied with our real friends to have time for virtual friends. Privately our comments were not that polite. Sometimes we would rail at the state of society that made fictional friends in absurd settings more valued than the quirky ones in our lives. Other times, we’d lament the decisions, dates, diets, and dawdling of real friends and long for some fictional ones without the warts and bumps of humanity.


My dad, Wally

As a teen and young adult, I similarly criticized my father’s trips to the neighborhood bar. His daily visits made Norm’s on Cheers seem erratic. Dad’s were deeply tied to his alcoholism. My criticism was deeply tied to his struggles to face the conflicts we all called home. But, even though they were facilitated by drinking alcohol, his friendships were more real than those on a screen.

These memories came to mind this weekend after reading, David Brooks’ opinion piece in the New York Times on October 7, 2016. I am enjoying his writing quite a bit, if not always agreeing with what he says, at least that he says it. In this way, I guess his column is thought-provoking: I do not set the pieces down just once, but come back to them again and again, agreeing at some moments, yet somehow irked by his relentless conservatism.

This week Brooks notes that our screens and social media do not cause us to become more isolated, more lonely. They are, after all, mere tools. No, we are bringing our avoidance, reticence, and resistance to intimacy to the fore and using social media as a means of staying in contact while remaining alone.

I wonder if the situation is perhaps more complex.

You never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die.
— Louis C.K., Why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids, Conan, September 2013

When I first read these words of Louis C.K. in Brooks’ article, they snagged me. They snagged me sufficiently to search for them on his appearance a few years ago on Conan. The longer segment provides listeners with a great example of how texting pulls one away from a sense of loneliness, an emptiness that C.K. views as part of life. But he notes that when he allowed himself to feel sad and alone, he also got a whiff of real joy.

Paul joking with our friend, Jan

Paul joking with our friend, Jan

This distance of ourselves from ourselves – a failed exposure to the very intrapersonal intimacy that is prerequisite for interpersonal intimacy — keeps us just sort of satisfied with life. But C.K. applied that sense of tepid satisfaction to our products. And there for me is the snag. These phones are not our products. They are tools sold to our hands with increased urging, not only by manufactures and vendors, but by our friends and acquaintances.

Recently, on the way home from a visit with a friend, I realized that we had just talked again about her phone. Included in the talk were updates on the just now recalled and then discontinued new Samsung phone. I cannot imagine having this conversation about her sink, blender, hammer, toilet, or shower squeegee. Only this tool warranted so much attention from us both.

I wonder if the product to which C.K. is referring is actually our longing, not our phones. Facebook, Snapchat, NPR One, Instagram, Tinder, Adam for Adam, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Grindr have discovered ways to monetize our loneliness through the use of the screens in our hands. Then, like a sex or drug addiction, the means of our escape from loneliness becomes the cause of it as we withdraw further from actual connection.

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact.
— Andrew Sullivan, I Used to Be a Human Being, New York magazine, September 18, 2016

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