A friend of mine – an old friend – a really good friend – recently moved nearby. We’re living within miles of each other for the first time in a really long time. It’s great – it really is. Well, okay: we’ve seen each other twice since he moved, and it has been almost a year. But still, it’s great. Actually, you know what: I’ve just realised I haven’t replied to him. He asked me something about going to the pub in a week’s time. Shit. Now I remember. He messaged me on Facebook. I read it at around midnight. It’s been six days. I find myself in situations like this a lot.
Luckily, this time it’s fine: the next day, my friend and I go to the pub together and catch up. Midway through pint number two, we are talking about his Tinder trials and tribulations. He’s gone through a string of half-relationships over the last year. Some months ago, he was ghosted. He talked about how his immediate response was to pin the blame on himself: “I’m not good looking or interesting enough”, he told himself. He’d been down about it for a long time.
After some weeks, he found out that the girl he was seeing was in fact burnt out, stressed and generally tired - she wasn’t replying to anyone. My friend explained how it was difficult for him to think outside the mindset of her ghosting being a reflection on him and how that was his immediate impulse. One outcome of this whole experience for my friend was that it left him thinking about his habits of social media and online communication in general, and how having so many different means of contact meant that it’s easy to take little things, like late responses, or even ghosting, personally.
While our conversation at the pub continued down the direction of what happened to that relationship (it ended), I found my threads of thought about social contact in today’s world left unprocessed. And in the days that followed, I myself began to rethink my own approach to communication. Was I not guilty of a smaller version of the same offense his then-sort-of-girlfriend had experienced months earlier by not replying for six days?
Taking a step back, it’s easy to imagine a couple of reasons why the reality of the way in which we interact with one another as something which is affected by other complex factors.
Of course, this whole thing goes beyond the dating world. Taking myself as an example: I have two Twitter accounts, a personal Facebook account through which I am an admin of three pages, two Instagram accounts, add to that three different email addresses and a mobile phone with WhatsApp. There are thirteen different ways of reaching me. Obviously, there has never been a time like the one we live in now. Long gone are the days when the only way to reach one another remotely was using a landline telephone or sending a letter.
Life can feel like a constant process of self-administration. There’s never a sudden bombardment of messages – it’s more of a trickle, but the trickle is constant and inevitable. I have several ongoing Facebook messenger conversations with friends I don’t remember the last time I saw. Everyone I’ve ever met is easily contactable all the time – and my freedom to contact them, or reply to them, often ends up meaning that I rarely contact anyone. I live in a continuous state of possibility. More and more, I find myself responding to messages from friends when I’m in the mood to do so. Does this make me antisocial? Or does everyone have a different social threshold?
The thing is, the media we use to communicate can very well blur our sense of social clarity. I feel a little bit anxious when I know I’ve seen an email or a message and haven’t replied. On top of the social requirement to be accessible through a range of different online accounts, some of the communication platforms don’t really offer much help in keeping social matters simple. Take Facebook; I found the “Seen” function within Facebook Messenger incredibly annoying when it was added a few years ago. It felt like I no longer had the freedom to get back to people in my own time without that seeming rude. And not only does this function tell you your friend knows you’ve seen their message, it also tells them when you saw it.
We have to keep in mind that the success of the business model of companies like Facebook is largely, if not completely, dependent on users’ engagement with their platform; we live in the age of the so-called Attention Economy. Facebook’s “Seen” function is one among a number of different strategies used to drive engagement to the platform. The quicker and more often you respond to your messages, the longer you spend on the platform and the greater the chance you may see something that, somewhere down the line, will lead to a sale.
Is it any wonder, then, that in our world, where the profits of corporations are proportional to the amount we contact our friends, we can often find ourselves feeling a little burnt out, indifferent to instant social contact and often a kind of collective malaise? I totally empathise with the girl my friend was seeing. It’s no reflection on our friendship that I didn’t respond to my friend for that amount of time. Really, I don’t think we’re a generation of ghosters.