Social presence in these strange days: “All of my friendships are virtual again”

[The tragedy of the Coronavirus pandemic is highlighting our need for, and the nature of, effective social presence. This personal reflection from WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, highlights some of the issues, including the effectiveness of less ‘rich’ media. –Matthew]

[Image: Each text, each silly emoji, reminds me that my people are out there, their cursors blinking in the darkness just like mine, writes Whitney Scharer. Credit: Christin Hume/Unsplash]

COMMENTARY

All Of My Friendships Are Virtual Again

March 27, 2020
Whitney Scharer

I went to college in 1995, a time when — as my 10-year-old daughter was horrified to learn — we didn’t have cell phones and the internet barely existed.

I was slow to adjust to college life: I missed my circle of high school friends, I missed my boyfriend, and I didn’t get along with my strange roommates, one of whom had a Disney Princess comforter and the other who used to call home and carry on full conversations with her cat (“I can hear you purring, Mittens, yes I can! I can hear you!”).

In order to escape my dorm room, I spent a lot of time at the library. My school had just created an “intranet,” where students could connect with others on campus. To do this, you logged onto a school desktop computer, opened up a Linux command window and typed the word “finger.” (Yes, really). The cursor would blink for a while, and then a long list of all the students who were active on the network would appear, in that primitive monospace computer font, white letters on a dark screen.

I used this “finger” command every time I went to the library, not because I wanted to chat online with anyone — I barely had any college friends at that point — but because I wanted to feel less alone, wanted the sense that there were other students like me out there, staring mournfully into their computer screens and yearning for a sense of connection.

Back then, my emotions felt so big, so close to the surface: my joy more giddily joyful than it is now, but my sadness also vaster and wider and harder to control. To tamp down my melancholy, I crafted obsessively long emails to my childhood friends. I would spend hours on these missives, carefully searching for the perfect turn of phrase to describe the awful cafeteria food, or to share the experience of seeing the stars through the school’s giant telescope.

I’ve been thinking about those early college days a lot recently, in these first few weeks of social-distancing. Partly, it’s because my emotions feel big just like they did back then: a couple of weeks ago, I listened to the Italians singing together in Siena and started to cry. And partly it’s because all my friendships are virtual again.

Aside from my husband and child, all the people I care about are only available to me on some type of network, their voices breaking up on cell calls, or their faces boxed up in little Google-Hangout squares. It’s the type of communication I eschew entirely under normal circumstances. I hate the phone, and hate video calls even more. I’m a person who pretends not to have reception when someone FaceTimes me. But now, I’m actively seeking out digital interactions.

On Sunday, I did a Zoom conference version of my weekly writing workshop. We made each other laugh like we always do, and we also got to show off our plaid pajamas and hold up our glasses of wine, luxuries that aren’t possible in a regular classroom setting.

Last night, I had a “virtual happy hour” with two dear friends — something we wouldn’t find time for under normal circumstances, with our time zone differences and busy schedules. Our virtual get-together was a safe space for us to be snarky together, just like our girls’ weekends used to be.

I’ve called and texted and emailed so many more people than I generally do, reaching out in new ways now that the opportunities for face-to-face contact have been taken away. Friends have suggested “read-aloud book clubs,” where we get together and read short stories out loud to one another, and just this afternoon I wrote a dear friend a proper letter and popped it in the mail while I was out walking the dog — the kind of letter I haven’t written in years; the kind that, up until this week, I always felt too busy to write.

These are different ways to be together, but they are as precious and meaningful as a dinner party or a night out at a bar.

Every time I reach out to someone, especially via email or text, I find myself giving the correspondence (and by extension, my friend) my full attention, and remembering the way words can bring you closer to the people that you love. I’m savoring their responses even more than usual, too — each text, each silly emoji, reminding me that my people are out there, their cursors blinking in the darkness just like mine.

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