We have fallen prey to a “tyranny of connectedness,” according to New York Times columnist Henry Alford. In his article, “The Tyranny of Constant Contact,” Alford describes his mother’s personification of the computer as something that will reach out and gobble up a person whole. Silly.
But as subscribers to the all-encompassing world of digital communications, our time, if not our actual selves, is being gobbled up--time spent analyzing messages, painstakingly constructing digitized personas, and sending indirect and unspoken messages via the Internet.
As children of the digital age, college students are perhaps the most technologically immersed population yet. So, it should come as no surprise that Boston College students have plenty to say regarding their own digital communications.
A theme that persistently emerged in a survey of BC students on their messaging behavior was a perceived need to decode messages due mostly to the absence of body language and tone. Students feared that their own communiqués could be misinterpreted, but even more so, they found themselves confused by the messages they received from others.
A senior who confessed to frequently decoding and analyzing other people’s messages explains, “while I also feel I do this with verbal communication, I do it more so with digital messaging because I cannot read into body language, tone and faces.” When the text stands alone, “it’s difficult to get the emotion behind the message,” says a freshman.
Taking a message for face value, it seems, would be the most straightforward tactic and the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, this proves to be easier said than done. The gnawing desire to understand other people’s messages often overcomes the logical resolution to ignore connotations.
“I decode because I’m generally insecure,” says Madeline Malinovsky, MCAS ’18. Several other survey participants brought up insecurity as the primary reason for which they scrutinize the inflections and intentions of the messages they receive.
And while many of us reflect on and analyze the personal conversations we share, the details of an in-person interaction escape the mind rather quickly, whereas texts and Facebook exchanges stick around much longer, begging to be annotated and dissected.
Not only do we decode our own messages, but our friends are invited in on the investigation as well. Text messages are brought under the scrutiny of an entire panel of friends and after being passed through a spectrum of interpretations, the original messages emerge nearly unrecognizable in meaning.
Just as essential to our analysis of messages as content is their timing. “If it takes me more than 24 hours to respond to an email, I’ll apologize to the sender,” says Alford. “After a day, the failure to respond betrays disinterest, concern or alcohol poisoning.”
If grown adults like Alford use timing to send passive cues, then it comes as no surprise that college students take that game to even more all-consuming levels.
“Girls sit around and analyze messages, wait certain amounts of time to not seem too eager, decide when or if it's appropriate to text after meeting when it should be so much more simple,” professes a CSON sophomore.
Texting, while intended to be the most efficient form of communication, has turned into a cellular game of playing hard-to-get. Participants draw conversations out into spans of time so wide that the dialogue is rendered practically meaningless, all for the sake of appearing importantly occupied, or coolly disinterested.
And while trying to determine what others mean by their cryptic messages and suspicious time lapses is a perpetual challenge, the process of constructing one’s own façade can be just as agonizing.
The hazard of responding too quickly to messages is appearing “desperate or like you have nothing to do,” as one sophomore puts it. So, in the interest of being ‘chill’ and maintaining a safe air of disinterest, students opt for digital distance.
The desire to appear emotionally uninvolved is especially pervasive in romantic exchanges.
In her essay “The Allure of an Old-School Romance,” published in the New York Times, Santa Monica College student Jochebed Smith struggles with breaking up with a boyfriend in real life, and with the nuances of managing the breakup on social media. “Unfollowing him was too dramatic, as if I were proclaiming, ‘I can’t handle this!’ Remaining friends on social media, however, showed I was unfazed, cool, ‘chill’ and whatever.”
While Smith worked to maintain her perfectly “unfazed” digital façade, remaining friends with her ex on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter made emotional healing nearly impossible. Every time she felt close to being emotionally removed, his face would crop up on the Internet, tearing her wounds wide open again.
Furthermore, behind closed doors she foolishly dissected her ex’s ambiguous social media posts: “One night, drunk at 2 a.m., I was trying to decipher if an innocuous Drake lyric he tweeted could somehow be directed at me as a possible admission of affection.”
Crazy, yes! But the scariest thing about her admission is that it elicits a startling moment of recognition in anyone who has found him or herself obsessively scanning the social media profile of an old love interest.
In the end, Smith chose to free herself completely from romances with a strong, digital component. She discovered the sexiness of dating a man who was off the grid, a man who could only be reached by phone calls and minimal texting.
“We engaged in face-to-face, eye-to-eye conversations about books… and about our ideas and hopes,” she writes, “unencumbered by the need to take selfies or choose filters or stare at our phones.”
It sounds almost nostalgic and old-fashioned: sit down, look-you-in-the-face conversation. A real act of bravery by our present standards.
One CSON freshman who may find herself as ready for digital severance as Smith, criticizes, “People use social media and technology as a mask which diminishes the integrity and quality of interpersonal relationships.”
This point was hardly disputed by any of the BC students surveyed.
Still, many more BC students strike up a balance between placing the highest value on face time (no, not FaceTime) and still appreciating the power of messaging. After all, it is thanks to cell phones and social media that students will be able to easily keep in touch with friends and classmates across the world throughout the summer months.
With the right approach and a little finesse, maybe messaging can be made pain-free after all.
A student in CSOM ’17 says, “I tend to take [messages] at face value, as I use texting to communicate less important matters, like making plans or menial conversations with close friends,” and similarly, another junior keeps the drama to a minimum by only using Facebook and texting for communication with close friends.
“Like anything, it requires moderation,” muses Isaiah Rawlinson, MCAS ’18. “The ease of access makes plans easier to make and change. However, it is easy to feel like the message is not translating in the intended way or that it is impossible to be alone because there is always a way to reach you.”
We as cell phone users revere technology for its ability to instantaneously connect us, and rightly so. Yet perhaps like Henry Alford’s mother with her fear of being devoured by the all-consuming computer, there is a nostalgic in each of us, fearful of the power in that pulsating iMessage ellipse and longing for the clarity of an old-fashioned conversation.