Friday, October 15, 2010

Piecing Together Our Lives, One Fragment at a Time

My mom called me earlier this week. "I heard you were sick," she began the conversation. "Your father told me after reading about it on the Internet."

I took this call in stride. As it turns out, even a mere blog entry or Facebook status update is enough to make a concerned mother run to the phone to ensure that everything was all right. But I thought that her mode of information was interesting - she knew that I was sick, but at the same time, she didn't know the manner of the sickness, or when this had happened. Due to the paucity of information about my personal life that I dole out on the Internet, she really knew very little. 

I'm finding that this is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in the age of social networking. A lot of articles, particularly in the wake of that Facebook movie, have discussed the fact that we're now hyper-informed about each other's lives. We know what strangers and old friends are up to, even if we haven't spoken to them in years. Rob wrote an excellent article about this a few weeks ago. But in all the talk about this torrent of information, I think that something else important has been ignored - the kind of information we know about each other. 

Sure, I literally receive daily updates about the ongoings of my friends via Facebook, but these updates usually range from trivial to insignificant. The fact is, we know a lot about each other's lives, but our information is fragmentary, a disjointed collection of thousands of close-up shots, rather than some sort of coherent picture of our friends' lives. 

A lot of this comes from the sheer extensiveness of our communications. Back in that pre-digital, pre-cell phone age, communicating with a friend long-distance was an event that required work. Watch all these old phone commercials - long-distance communication was frequently accompanied by corny lounge singers and grown men emphatically stating how much they enjoy talking on the phone to their loved ones. Long-distance communication was a Special Event, which made it an Expensive Event as well. 

Nowadays, I can be in touch with nearly everyone I've ever met instantaneously, not just because my cell phone has rendered "long-distance" an outdated concept, but because my phone also allows me to text, email, or Facebook my friends wherever I am. This is both pleasant and cheap - so cheap, that I can afford for my communications to be silly, minor and insubstantial. 

Take, for example, Facebook. Looking over my News Feed, I see what my friends had for lunch today, what movies they saw, what times they are going to bed. I know more about the quotidian minutiae of my acquaintances'  lives than I ever thought possible. I regularly text my friends with short, pithy statements. I've not yet fallen prey to Twitter, but it promises the same conceit in a condensed form - tell the world whatever you want in 140 characters or less. 

Between looking at new photos posted, receiving the occasional text message, reading a tweet or two, I have a general idea what is going on in my friends' lives. But these snippets of life are so fragmented that I'm often forced to stitch the rest of the narrative together myself. It's the very nature of these modes of communication that they convey the smaller events in life. Old-fashioned letters began with the broad statement "I am in good health," old-fashioned long-distance phone calls began with, "I'm doing fine." Facebook status updates begin with "I'm having tacos for dinner!"

Facebook and Twitter and texting mean that I know quite a bit about the details of my friends' lives while still retaining only a vague notion as to their jobs, or even their cities of residence. Because these modes of communication focus on specifics over generalizations, I've sometimes found myself making assumptions about their lives that turn out not to be the case: "You don't live in New York?" or "You two aren't a couple?" Trying to extrapolate based on specific status updates or photos only goes so far. 

Don't get me wrong - I like email and I've been won over by texting, and I have a grudging respect for Facebook. It's allowed me to keep in touch with a lot of people who might have otherwise drifted away, and it's made staying in close contact with my good friends far far easier (and cheaper). But we should be careful in assuming that, just because I know where my friends are at this very minute via FourSquare, that I actually know what's going on in their lives. 

Because there's a lot that happens to us - moves, jobs, relationships, successes, hopes, tragedies, losses - that are so broad that they can't really be summed up in a Tweet or a text. The Christmas card, for example, might seem hopelessly obsolete, but a broad, once-in-a-year letter can sometimes convey the larger happenings of one's life in the way that the fragmentary nature of our digital tools cannot. 

So, yes, it might speak to the 21st-century that my mother found out I was sick via this blog. But I'm glad she responded, not through text message, but through a good old-fashioned phone call.