One vast criticism I hear about our culture is that we are always on. We’ve got our phones, our tablets, our pads and laptops and screens, screens, screens, screens. Connection is in wires and out in the air around us. You can walk down a street in Nowhere, Iowa with an iPhone in front of your face, looking into the eyes of someone in Delhi if you want to. Waiting tables, it wasn’t uncommon to see an entire family with some sort of screen in front of them — to the point that I’d usually crow with delight when I saw a kid with a book. (Never saw kids reading on the Almighty Pad — just games or video.) And a restaurant in New York literally went through almost a decade of video footage to get the data on how much longer people spend staring at their phones than they do at the menu — and then blaming service. Excessive Facebooking has been blamed for higher divorce rates.
All of that paints an icky picture.
I’ve had a couple long conversations lately about this thing, this buzzing, elusive, jumpy, sparky thing called connection.
I can’t help thinking that a lot of what I’m about to say is based in an article I read about the happiness of married couples and the correlation made to whether or not each partner responds to the other’s bids for attention.
Social media is, at its core, just that. We put bits of ourselves and our lives out there in a bid for attention and connection. From frightening health concerns to “hahaha, this cat farted,” we’re ultimately reaching out for something and calling out into a can, hoping to encounter someone at the other end of the string who has their cylinder of metal to their ear.
If you ask me about Twitter, you’ll probably get a lengthy soliloquy about how much I love it. I love Twitter. I really do. Twitter is the social media I can use and write at the same time. It’s the thing I can do on the go and then do something else. And Twitter? It’s been the source of some of the most incredible friendships I have, a chance to interact with people I’d never have access to otherwise, and a source of information and laughter. Granted, my countdown to a Twitter shitstorm is still ticking away, being a feminist who writes SFF and likes video games, but up till now? Overwhelmingly positive.
Facebook is my biggest time suck, and I cannot Facebook and do anything productive.
But, pragmatically, Facebook has the highest level of engagement in shares, even if Twitter has faster response times and the potential for more observable exponential growth. (Look at me and my ROI bullshit, whee.)
For me, Twitter isn’t about ROI — it’s about relationships. I like hopping on and knowing I can hit the home button and probably see something interesting within ten tweets. I like that I can tweet a silly story and people will make ME laugh with their responses. And I like that the people who have opted to beam me into their tweet stream are from tons of different circles. Supernatural people. Scottish independence people. Writery people. Readery people.
I love that I’ve met heaps of Twitter people face to face now and each time it’s been a sense of, “Yesssssss, it’s you! *high five*”
While this is a sort of detached dissection of social media and connection, for me its roots are deeply human. My community, most of whom I’ve never met face to face or hug to hug, saved me this month. My GISHWHES team has been a lifeline throughout this year’s myriad trials. Through heart attacks and family trauma, illness and financial woes, there’ve been many times when someone in our group has reached out and found digital hands to hold. For me, a person who has difficulty finding time and energy to pursue in person friendships, having a circle of friends all over the world who I can chat to at 2 AM or noon on any day is this introvert’s dream.
Thinking back to BurCon, I am reminded of how I wouldn’t have been sharing a room with Kelly without Twitter. There were other connections made at BurCon that were layered, social media threading through or sparking an interaction that would later become face to face, or vice versa.
I want to segue that into the title of this blog post — to this concept of reaching out and reaching back.
Two weeks ago, I reached out. Over a hundred people reached back in some way. One of those people gave me a copy of Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking, and in it, she talks about the difference between being looked at and being seen. Many of us dislike being simply looked at. For me that sensation is tied to being the girl who blushed too easily in junior high, who the boys would then laugh at and point to because it made my blushing worse. And then there’s the counterpoint to being made an object, where someone’s eyes meet yours and you feel something shift in the air, that inaudible hum that tells you they get it, they get you — even if it’s just for a moment.
So much of our lives are built around searching for those moments, whether it’s with new acquaintances, old friends, family, significant others, or people we admire. Working in an industry where I’m at least partially a public figure and having friends and acquaintances at all levels and stages of their careers, I find it fascinating how those bids for attention happen — and how much the acknowledgement and response to those bids can be incredibly impactful. If you reach out to an author or celebrity you like and they reach back? It can be a hugely validating moment for both sides. Even though there is (and understandably so) a certain recognition of that strange limbo of I-know-who-you-are-but-you-don’t-know-me, that doesn’t preclude genuine connection.
At conventions this year, I met a few people who I’d heard of all over the place but had had no interaction with. Far from being a simple wave and handshake, some of those meetings have blossomed into mutual respect and friendship.
On a more “traditional” level, a bid for attention or acknowledgement can be as simple as making eye contact with someone over the canapes at the awkward holiday party at your new job. If someone connects and responds, it can be that same sort of validation. I see you. You’re worth my attention. Let’s find out about each other, shall we?
So often, the breakdown in relationships happens because someone makes a bid for attention and the other person either doesn’t respond — or responds with frustration, annoyance, or indifference.
What’s so interesting to me is that these things can happen in person, but they can happen just as easily (maybe even more easily) over social media and the internet. In person you might high five someone in a Doctor Who shirt or notice someone’s excitement at a song you love. On Twitter, someone might retweet something that resonates with you, you might follow, and boom. You’ve connected with someone you might never have otherwise seen.
The point is this: meaningful human connection isn’t constrained to your ability to smell someone’s garlic breath. While there is definitely a time to switch off the phone (or put it away) and look your server in the eye at a restaurant to order before turning back to the people you’re there with, the virtual connections we make can both create and reinforce the day-to-day.
It’s been three years now since Kristin and I started a friendship over shared grief and blogs. I realized Monday night in our little hangout with our gaming troupe that aside from my roommates, if something were to happen to me, she’d be the first to notice. We’ve spoken every day for all this time. That’s a relationship connection I never would have made in person were it not for the magic of technology pulling love out of the ether.
And I will never, ever forget the immense, ferocious kindness of my online community when I needed it the most.
Whatever holidays you celebrate, watch for those bids this season, both in person and from afar. The beauty of human connection is that even when you’re alone, you can feel the web you’re navigating. If you’re feeling alone and reach out, someone might just reach back.
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