It has become somewhat of a commonplace to say that the Internet has corrupted the ways we communicate — that people don’t conventionally date anymore because a booty call over text (“whatsup”) will more than suffice. My gut response to such a reductive argument: Shouldn’t the Internet, with all its portals of communication — text, e-mail, voice, Skype, etc. — do the opposite? Shouldn’t we be able to communicate more precisely now that the modes through which we can say things are so diverse? Or do we hold on to the Paleolithic idea that the only form of communication that “counts” is the one we experience face-to-face?
In hindsight, my interpretation is likely just as reductive. To say that the Internet has freed up the ways we communicate is nothing but a pipe dream. There are so many rules attached to the websites we frequent; rules we’ve created, passed down and molded into our consciousness.
Below is a sampling of the protocols governing our oft-used communication tools. If they have anything in common, it’s what happens in the silences, the time we put into observing how others utilize these same tools and negotiating what we do with that information. The Internet, for all its speed, has ironically allowed us more time to construct what we want to say and supplies us with the “screen courage” to do so.
But a faux pas can lead to devastating repercussions, since screen text doesn’t immediately dissolve upon transmission as sound waves do. The result is that the Internet becomes a mutual exchange of silences, not unlike those experienced in real life.
Facebook: The hall of reflecting mirrors, Facebook serves as a place where the things everybody says to everybody else are registered in comprehensively organized boxes. A place to mindlessly scan through pictures you’ve already flicked back and forth 1000-plus times, periodically untag yourself in unflattering poses, react in mock-horror when you find out that the cute guy in your anthropology class has been stalking you and blush with embarrassment when you accidentally blurt out the information that you know your crush didn’t know you knew because you saw him in a Facebook photo with Girl X. One picture with an arm looped around the shoulder says they’re hooking up; a comment like “haha, fun times” says they’re semi-public; a winky face says they’re full-public. You’ve memorized the slight tilt of the baseball hat. You know which pair of glasses looks best on him. Unfriending is the worst form of punishment.
Twitter: A combination of navel-gazing and self-indulgence (why would anybody care what brand of shower gel you bought from CVS?) with a smidge of voyeurism (the answer: everyone). Followers and RTs serve as something of a currency. The more followers you have, the more time you spend agonizing over your allotted 140 characters.
Tumblr: Curated, aesthetic pieces of self where taste divisions become most evident. No followers, unless you’re a cult sensation who posts cute pictures of babies in hats, although it’s a no-no to reveal just how many followers you have. Anonymity is the rule rather than the exception, which acts as both a positive (you can show your “true” personality!) and a negative (the “Ask me anything” box where haters gonna hate).
Pinterest: See above, but nix the anonymity and add an excess of hair tutorials, recipes and inspirational quotes.
Gmail: Truly your own personal space — it’s not for anyone’s eyes but yours — but it’s also the most devoid of any personality. You check your e-mail like a drug habit. Though the “You’ve got mail!” ping is long defunct, the Pavlovian sentiment remains. Most messages in your inbox are sent by machines — advertisements with J. Crew “FINAL SALE” urgency sitting alongside office hours notifications from CTools.
Most of us have weaned ourselves away from our childhood usernames and exclamation point ridden signatures. Our Google profiles consist of our real-life names (maybe a period or number separating the first and last names because there’s just too many of you in the world) and a head and shoulders profile picture, usually just slightly better looking than your actual face. The biggest decision we make when writing e-mails is whether to use “best” or “thanks” following a sign-off. The unread messages in your inbox serve as the constant deferral of what might come, and also the promise that there’s always someone out there who wants to speak to you.
Google+: Um, what’s this for again?
Jennifer Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.