Why Must We Always Communicate?

The soul selects her own society,/Then shuts the door;/On her divine majority/Obtrude no more. –Emily Dickinson

Today, of course, anyone reflective enough to read the occasional 19th century poet while still spending hours steeped in the ersatz social swim of Twitter and Facebook might be baffled by the above quote. Why should a soul “shut the door” when there are those great new pictures Jared just posted, including the one where Britni got loaded and took off her top and twirled it over her head like a stripper? Why indeed, when there are so many cool people out there in virtual society, some of whom might even be using their real names? (There’s just the question of posting a new profile picture—maybe something just a bit hotter, since everyone can’t stop gawking at Britni with her top off.)

Self-exposure, whether actual or digital, is now the norm. There is a mania for “connectedness,” of never being out of touch for even a nanosecond, so that any member of our virtual tribe can email, text, tweet, or phone at any time. The Big Brother of 1984 is now our actual brother, Facebook “friend,” co-worker, neighbor, or voyeuristic stranger—when we’re not turning the camera on ourselves. And in exchange, we get to hear about it every time they have a cup of coffee, go to the gym, wash the ‘Vette, or clean out their garage—or colon.

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With some reluctance, I opened accounts on the above-mentioned social networking sites with the main motive of promoting my radio program. Twitter I gave up almost immediately as being worthless to me after a half-hearted attempt at posting terse aphorisms and bad jokes. Since I don’t care to promote news of my coffee intake or digestive activities, I went the fortune-cookie route. What I discovered was that most people on Twitter have absolutely nothing to say. Perhaps that’s why it’s so popular.

Certainly, mindless communication is nothing new. Back in the early 1900s, the penny postcard was the true intellectual forebear of Twitter. People collected these cards, posted them in albums, and millions have been saved. The postally used ones contain very Twitter-like messages: “It’s warm here. Bert has the gout. Say Hello to Ma.” (And the postman read them all, and knew everyone’s business.) Twitter has just enabled this banality to be sent instantaneously.

Facebook has been more adaptable to my purposes, though it didn’t grab me at first, mainly because it seemed like one of those irritating parties where everyone decides to play Scattergories when I’d rather drink beer with the dog in the kitchen. After a hiatus from it, I decided to ignore all the virtual snowball fights and other digital infantilism. There’s still a ton of trash to wade through, but it has its uses. A radio colleague posted a video of his method for cleaning 78s, which I had to admit was clever. And I saw my brother’s vacation pictures without having to get in my car and drive a mile to his house.

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Such communications are worthy and useful. Other aspects of the social networking craze are less savory. The most insidious, and potentially the most troublesome, is the illusion of intimacy. It’s so tempting to let out a digital blast of rage or lamentation when our day isn’t going quite as planned. Suddenly, our “friends” respond with solicitude and sympathy. We feel almost compelled to spill our virtual guts to strangers since they were kind enough to inquire.

The overwhelming majority of these messages are sincere, but they create a point of intimacy where none should exist. It’s interactive soap opera. I find that in the course of promoting my show on these sites a certain number of young women who are into the music I play (or into the whole Deco-Retro aesthetic) want to be “friends.” I’m okay with that since it’s about the radio program. (I never added anyone who showed a lot of flesh and “wanted to party.”) But some of these gals would respond to my barbaric yawps with obvious concern. I’d reply politely and without going into detail.

What proved somewhat more embarrassing was when, a number of years back, I found myself sucked into the digital melodrama. I began playing e-bartender. Things were vouchsafed to me that never should have been made my business by people with whom I never would have communicated under any normal circumstances. But who is able to rightly determine when compassion veers into prurient nosiness?

Here a negative aspect of the virtual swim (false intimacy) begins to impinge on and possibly thwart a more positive aspect (networking with fans and colleagues). Not too far removed from this is the need for almost indiscriminate self-exposure (and the voyeuristic thrill of being the one exposed to). Far from the soul shutting the door, it blows it off the hinges.

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The mere ubiquity of communication goes well beyond the internet and social networking sites. It’s a blessing that we’re not forced to watch people typing away at their keyboards at home. It would be an equal blessing if almost every person I saw walking past my house didn’t have hands raised to their ears, or weren’t working tiny buttons with their thumbs. If I were absolutely certain it would not disrupt some profound philosophical discussion (or texting symposium) I would shout at them, “Why are you so afraid to be out of touch? Why is it so disagreeable to be alone with your own thoughts for five minutes? Why must you always communicate?

I do have a cell phone, and I find it useful about three times a year. It’s one of those cheap Family Dollar-type models, and as such I’ve accumulated three thousand or so minutes on it. I’m just not inclined to telephone anybody when I’m out in public. I don’t even feel much like phoning when I’m at home with my land line.

My lack of cell use stems not out of any health consideration—the possible dangers of microwaves, etc.

Nor is it from any paranoid fear that someone is listening in. In fact, I can’t imagine the tedium of listening to all the banal and idiotic cell phone conversations that take place all day long in the hopes of catching a “terrorist.” My deepest sympathies go out to the people who sift through all that verbal dreck—it’s got to be the worst job at the NSA.

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It’s just that most of the time I simply don’t have anything to say—anything that warrants a phone call, that is. Do others feel like they have to chatter (and text) all day or they’ll cease to exist? If they don’t post their innermost thoughts they’ll implode into some sort of existential black hole? Is it a matter of “I tweet, therefore I am?” I sincerely wonder what I am missing here.

Someday, the contemplative soul might eventually decide that it’s time to shut the door—except that it’s a screen door and it has a hole in it. Once we opt out of privacy, it’s almost impossible to opt in again.

Yet, somehow I don’t think that privacy is something that will be much mourned. Having everyone know all the details of our daily existence is almost like being famous. How else will we connect with like-minded “friends?” How else will our “friends” be able to offer us wise counsel on our most intimate personal problems?

It’s almost anti-social to want to keep your thoughts to yourself. Only some weird reclusive freak would want to be inscrutable.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

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How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring blog!