cultural, social science

The insatiable thirst for online connection

“I know why you’re here, Neo. I know what you’ve been doing… why you hardly sleep, why you live alone, and why night after night, you sit by your computer.”

Part of the charm of The Matrix was how it translates so easily into modern youthful lives. Trinity could have described your life, or that of your friends. (Low, deep voice:) “You refresh your myspace page every few minutes. You check your facebook oftener than you look at your roomie. You check your email on gmail, yahoo, and your .edu account 50 times a day. I see you in those chat-rooms. I see you on those mailing lists. I know who you are. You are waiting – for …” And in our minds, each of us is Chosen: Chosen by fate for great events for which we wait.

Well, what is it that we are waiting for? What is so addictive about online communication? Why is connecting on the internet so absorbing that we forego conversations in person and on the phone with our spouses, children, and friends? Hour after hour, we sit on couches all over the country (and part of the world), clicking refresh and brightening at the sight of new comments on your status update, and new direct messages on your twitter. We are filled with joy at warm messages from people we have never met and never may meet. We connect in a ghost world, flitting back and forth endlessly, seeking something.

I suggest that what is so addictive about online communication is its unsatisfying quality. It does not slake the thirst for society: it whets it. It seems to bring us ever closer to connecting with others, and yet all we have to show for this connection is text on a website, something, nothing, in cyberspace, not even air. No touch of a hand, no embrace, no eye contact, no sound of laughter, nothing (well, unless you turn up your speakers and your virtual friends upload a video, or enable google chat).

Since we never really communicate, never really touch another person, we continue to seek to connect. And since we have already invested so many hours in the virtual form of communication, it is quite a wrenching experience to log off and to face the cold air and trudge through the street to see a friend – who may or may not be available, cheerful, welcoming. Online, you have a choice of friends. The one who responds to your tweets is available: you know without having to suffer a rebuff. It’s easy.

But I know who you are and why you wait. It’s because you want something more than an email message, chat text, facebook updates, tweets. Something that your parents and grandparents wanted, something you wanted before you got a laptop – face-to-face interaction. An outlandish thought.