Internet communication leaves us unprepared for real life interactions

William Witwer

“DO IT!”

In the context of www.whitmanencounters.com (known simply as Encounters), it is clear that the original author earnestly means this all-caps encouragement. On the other hand, in context, it almost entirely misses the point of the original post, and indeed, of the complicated social landscape behind it.

The Encounters website allows Whitman students to post anonymous flirtations without real restrictions. There is more to the site than just that, but the most frequent kind of post, the kind that the uppercase missive above is responding to, reflects a larger issue than Whitman’s sexual frustrations. That is, as technology has opened up more and more avenues of communication, our generation has actually gotten worse and worse at communicating. Especially when it comes to relationships.

The typical Encounters post describes a person the poster finds attractive, but has not actually met. The poster only knows their face and can’t bring themselves to introduce themselves or ask them out. Often the posts wish rather feverishly that the object of their affections would just talk to them or express anxiety about initiating a conversation. As above, the true denizens of the site, those who actually spend the time to comment on the posts of potential strangers, express enthusiasm for the poster to ignore their hang-ups and just DO IT!

But the enthusiastic responses, of which there are many, misunderstand why people use websites like this in the first place. In describing their crush from afar to an audience, the ambivalence towards actual progress with a real person is fairly obvious––the vast majority of people do not think that anything will come of their written words, but instead are seeking listeners. The anonymity of the site is the crucial ingredient for this odd relationship between timid, daydreamy posts and outsized, carpe diem responses––but the anonymity often makes posting on the site a form of withdrawal from the rules of everyday life.

Indeed, our generation’s orientation towards computers makes us fundamentally comfortable withdrawing into the social isolation of technology, which might be deemed a way of being “Alone, together.” Richard Sennett, author of the book “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation”, was quoted in a New Yorker article about how living alone is on the rise, with a grim picture of the future: “A distinctive character type is emerging in modern society, the person who can’t manage demanding, complex forms of social engagement, and so withdraws.” The author of the article, Nathan Heller, rightly takes issue with the idea that “messy, productive cooperation” doesn’t happen on the Internet, citing Wikipedia. But in the context of romantic relationships, Sennet’s point hits right on the money.

Dating certainly qualifies as a demanding, complex form of social engagement, and the need to post on Encounters and instead of actually pursuing the person in question is unequivocally a form of withdrawal, motivated by the need for one’s hopes or heartbreak to be voiced anonymously (and thus heard without preconception) instead of dealt with. Before dating culture shifted, having a date or two every weekend was an important and manageable goal. Today, we have transfigured the already tricky act of making the “first move” into something beyond difficult, a Sisyphean task not even worth attempting, just worth complaining about.

I’m not suggesting we try to go back to the 50’s, though––and besides, I’m fresh out of time machines. Nor do I mean to scapegoat Encounters, a site which I read with an odd brand of devotion and keen interest. Nor am I demonizing those of us who withdraw instead of confront––in fact, withdrawal almost seems like my basic mode of being; I empathize. I’ve been there. It just seems important to mention that withdrawing into technology instead of really interacting, instead of dealing with the messy, complicated business of life is hugely counterproductive and troubling.