Picture two twentysomethings meeting at a bar. Ian greets Michelle, she lets him buy her a drink, and voilà, these friendly strangers have begun to forge an informal social contract that will soon lead to a romantic interlude. What Michelle and Ian don’t realize is that their fling will disintegrate faster than a meteor striking the atmosphere. Why? Because they’re children of the Information Age, and true intimacy in this era has become a Paleolithic notion for all too many Millennials.
Due to a litany of mostly unsettling reasons, we now allow cyberspace strangers to invade our personal privacy and, to a great extent, define our emotional destinies. Via the Internet, we evaluate each other based on an exchange of watered-down information that ripples through our shrinking memory centers more quickly than it can be deciphered. In a world like this, intimacy no longer means much of anything. It becomes an incredibly insignificant part of the creation and maintenance of personal relationships, and we must take the blame for letting this happen.
Your name and cell phone number are the key and compass to a revealing information map. All one needs to do is follow the digital footprints you leave behind. Online social platforms like Facebook, MySpace, and Tumblr only require a name or number to view, for instance. Moreover, users often overlook or ignore privacy option settings that skilled online intruders can easily circumvent anyway.
Let’s return to Michelle and Ian for a moment. Within twenty minutes of meeting him, Michelle chirps, “Oh, you have to Facebook me!” She might as well have said, “Nice to meet you Ian. Call me some time. Also, check out pictures of me with my ex-boyfriend on Facebook. His Facebook profile is tagged in that picture, so feel free to look him up, too. He’s more handsome than you, you’ll probably think, but all the terrible things he has to say about me will surely impact your opinion of me well before we even set our first date.” To put it another way, “Facebook me” means, “Hey Ian, look at my Cyberstein creation that isn’t who I really am or who you should actually know. I guess you might have noticed that I hold little value in my own privacy and self-worth. You also probably intuited from this that I don’t really respect your privacy, either.”
Of course, at this point, most everyone is aware that social networking sites also promise several valuable benefits that are, at times, necessary for navigating the ever-changing currents of the 21st Century. One major benefit is the instant connection to people or groups with whom a person already holds a strong familiarity. However, this benefit doesn’t exist if a budding relationship has not yet grown to a level of comfort that allows for the free exchange of personal information pertaining to family, friends, or work. Privacy is lost, whether at the hands of a person who surrenders his or her information freely online or by the person who chooses to pursue it.
This static form of information interchange without regard to privacy is happening with stunning rapidity. Because of the constant and often instant availability of Internet data, people are giving and expecting information from others at completely unrealistic speeds. Sharing such a broad body of information at such an exponential rate devalues this information for both parties, as well as the intimacy associated with it. Text messaging represents the current nadir of this cultural trend. Limited to only 160 characters per message, instantly sent or received, and completely devoid of emotional value, this medium lends itself to nothing more than fact-based transmissions. When a person texts another, the information exchanged loses many dimensions for both parties just as quickly as the messages are sent. Emotional meaning is muted by a lack of physical connection. Anonymity stifles sound ethics and morals. The text message brutalizes emotionally sensitive situations between people sharing intimate relationships.
In the case of Michelle and Ian, who did indeed choose to pursue a romantic relationship, it took Ian only 32 thousandths of a second to send a text message telling poor Michelle he didn’t want to see her anymore. To add insult to injury, Ian didn’t have enough characters (or character) to text a better explanation for this decision in proper English, and his misspellings and punctuation errors didn’t help at all. And now, a bitter and inconsolable Michelle continues to post strange and hostile pictures, videos, and messages to her Facebook timeline that worry her mother.
Some might consider it easier to modify or even terminate a relationship without emotion on a nearly anonymous plane, especially when the information being shared could possibly hurt the people involved. But is “easier” really the right word when it comes to the building and maintenance of worthwhile relationships? No. The significant investments required of a close relationship should never be treated with such callous disregard, and the emotional needs of someone for whom you truly care should always outweigh the ease of a text message.
The nonchalant ambivalence of the Information Age spells disaster for mature relationships. Not only are people using texting, Facebook, and so on as a mask for worthwhile and honest communication, but these fraction-of-a-second exchanges of information leave no room for mental digestion. Yet, people in the U.S. are sending trillions of these insipid, dangerously fast bits of information all day, every single day. In so doing, they are unknowingly adapting to this change, relegating the overall value of intimacy to impersonal interactions that often require little or no personal responsibility for things said and done. When information loses its value, the intimacy associated with sharing and knowing this information also suffers. Emotional and moral imperatives grow more blurry and undefined. Hopefully, Ian and Michelle will pull this discussion up on the Internet and read it carefully sometime soon.