If social media is cocaine for our connection-addicted psyches, then those of us with social anxiety are the ones smoking crack. The addiction is instant, the highs are half as long, and the punishments twice as harsh. We crave it, but we can’t handle it. We know it’s dangerous, but we keep coming back for that fix. It offers something we always had trouble getting elsewhere, but also a pain we never had to worry about before. It’s about feedback. The hope of it, the lack of it, and the dead space in between.
The normal course of human communication generally has had two intervals. The first is instantaneous, as in a conversation. You stand next to someone (or pick up a phone) and talk to them. You get instant feedback, either in a reply or a laugh or a thoughtful pause or a gasp of shock. If you are in person, you can observe all of the nonverbal cues to get a further impression of how your comments were received. Getting good feedback is an instant pleasure. But this is also scary, because the person is right there. If you make a mistake, you know it right away, and though you can try to correct it, you can’t take it back, nor can you easily get away from them. And you have to think and respond quickly, without having time to compose your thoughts. The result is nervousness and an overanalysis of small, often irrelevant, clues, leading to worry and regret long after the conversation ends.
The other interval is long, which is generally true of written communication, whether a letter or a book. In this medium, you are free to compose your thoughts exactly as you mean them and put them down without interruption. You can be sure you are saying what you want. And since you won’t be there when the person reads it, you don’t have to worry (though it’s still allowed) about whether they will be angry or offended or sad or dislike you. You may never know what they thought or even who was reading. In any case, it won’t be till much later. You can shoot your words out there without the same concern. You don’t get the instant feedback to refine and correct your thoughts, nor do you get the instant hit of approbation (although you can and do imagine it), but it’s safer this way. We antisocials don’t tend to be risk takers.
The common ground of both intervals is that they place each party in a symmetrical relationship. Either you are both together or you are both at a distance. You don’t talk to someone at a party and have them reply with a letter. The actual medium used isn’t as relevant as the relative interval. Even if you read someone a letter in person and they responded, that’s still an instantaneous conversation, you just prepared for it ahead of time. Likewise if you talk while someone passes you notes. And sending long voicemails back and forth is no different than writing letters, though it may be marginally faster than using the postal service. The key is that you know what to expect, whether you will get an instant response or will have to wait or will get nothing at all.
Then along comes the Internet, that magical medium where all of our antisocial dreams can finally come true. I remember getting AIM (it came on a floppy disk) with one of those free monthly trials AOL mailed out every month. It was a tool made just for me, a drug tailored to my exact genetic makeup. You could talk to people without the awkward, terrifying ordeal of actually talking to a person. You didn’t have to see their face or avoid eye contact or hear their voice or use your own mouth in any way. You could compose your thoughts, see how they looked on a screen, before you actually said them. The person (or bot) on the other side couldn’t tell if you were nervous or awkward or distracted or upset unless you told them. It got me through college. Without it, I never would have been on a single date, much less have a wife, to this day. The highs were very high.
But the crash. Oh, the crash! If internet communication takes all of the best aspects of writing and conversations, it also takes all the worst parts of both, mixes in a huge portion of uncertainty, and stretches it out over every minute of the day. When you type an instant message, post on facebook, or send a text, the form of it is written, words on a screen, like on a page, that can be read and reread, saved for later, seen by many people who aren’t nearby. But the cadence and content is conversational, sent and received instantly, short bites, expecting a reply and capable of receiving it no matter where the recipient happens to be. You expect to get a reply, your message calls for a reply, you can get a reply at any time, but you don’t. The other person isn’t forced to reply like they would be if you were standing face to face, because the relationship created is asymmetrical. It can occur at any interval.
This is where the anxiety kicks in. The person who isn’t responding is probably not there. Or they didn’t see the message. They are in the bathroom. They are watching a movie. Or maybe they did see the message. Maybe they don’t have anything to say. Maybe they are upset. Maybe they didn’t like it. Maybe they don’t like you. Maybe they don’t want to talk you. Ever. You have no way to know. There are no clues to decipher, no reassurances of a smile or a distracted look, nor can you retreat into the assurance of mutual distance. There is only the vast expanse of silence in which to project your fears against your better reason. Do you see how this links every second into an ending chain of worry which drives even the relatively sane among us to be constantly checking, waiting, expecting, hoping for a response from people we know are out there just beyond our reach?
At some point someone got the idea to put an ellipsis on the screen when someone is typing, which is nice, I guess, if you want me to stare at a box trying to discern another person’s thoughts from what amounts to a blinking light. It doesn’t solve the core problem of the medium, which is a lack of reciprocal connection between the parties. The only way to solve that is to get rid of it, to use mediums that offer a better connection. But for all the advantages it provides, we’ll just have to get used to it, adjust our psyches accordingly, we antisocials most of all. So I’ll keep writing, keep posting, keep talking, throwing my self into the swirling waters, trying to find some stream. It’s not like I was any good with the old mediums, either, and I’m getting better. I just need one more hit.