Stop Typing and Start Talking

A pile of letters and Air Mail envelopes

Copyright: Jess Connett

Jess Connett explores the world of online communications and its affect on our relationships – for better or for worse

Communicating online is an everyday thing. When we’ve got something to tell a friend, we send a WhatsApp or a Facebook message. We start relationships with flirty Snapchats or by swiping right on Tinder. We document every single meal on Instagram.

This is efficient communication at its very best. You are never out of touch, regardless of the timezone. If your mate goes on holiday, you don’t have to wait until they’re back to find out if it was good – it’s all over their Twitter feed. You never feel alone, as long as your phone is buzzing every few minutes with retweets, reblogs and revines.

We cram our friends into our phone screens, rather than making time in our lives for them.

According to YouthNet, 86% of 16-24s ‘love how new technology helps them communicate’. From the earliest days of MSN messenger, it’s young people who have embraced new ways to talk without ever having to leave your bedroom. 75% of young people surveyed also said ‘they couldn’t live without the internet’. We are digital natives now – we’ve never known an offline world. Our real lives and online lives have never been so entwined.

However, despite their daily internet use, fewer than half of the young people surveyed said they felt ‘happiest’ online. We are social creatures – we all crave love, attention and appreciation – but online, this only goes skin-deep. By cramming our friends into a screen on our phone, rather than making time in our lives for them, we are negatively affecting our most important relationships.

Handwritten note, saying 'To Jess'

Copyright: Jess Connett

When I was ten, I had a pen pal. My dad came home one night with the news that his colleague had family in America, and a girl about my age was – at this very moment – writing me a letter. We were going to be friends. When the letter arrived, in a pale yellow envelope stamped Airmail, I couldn’t wait to rip it open and reveal its secrets.

Our first letters were tentative, sometimes awkward. I spelled her name wrong every time. My dull life in a grey house in the suburbs was miles away from her bubbly American friends, her beautiful older sister, her holidays at the beach – things I could barely imagine. She was a few years older than me, and I lived a world of adventure and glamour through her.

We crammed weeks of stories and wishes and dreams into our letters, talking about things we would do in the future, knowing that by the time the letter arrived, our tomorrow would be their yesterday. We told secrets and talked about our ambitions. We became best friends without needing to meet.

In our drive for more efficient ways to talk, we slowly grew silent.

A pile of colourful handwritten letters

Copyright: Jess Connett

In one of her letters, when I was twelve or thirteen, my pen pal gave me her new email address. She told me that it was a better way for us to keep in touch – we could chat as much as we wanted, even every night. It seemed perfect. My first email to her was a continuation of my letters – an epic saga of a month’s worth of teenage trials and tribulations. The gratification of seeing her reply ping back just a day later faded, as I realised that I’d told her everything I could. I needed to wait for something exciting to happen, to store up a few tales for my next email. And when, predictably, nothing exciting actually happened, I no longer had anything to tell her.

We gave up email for social media. When I clicked on her profile, I was confronted by hundreds of her other friends and acquaintances, all vying for her attention and approval. Our relationship no longer felt special – I was just a face in a friends list, rather than an individual who had shared something of her life.

The conversations we had, with the whole world watching, were restricted to flattering comments on a new photo, or birthday messages once a year. We were still friends, in the social media sense of the word.

The relationships we maintain online are fragile. They leave no trace in the world.

A handwritten note reads 'Check your e-mail!'

Copyright: Jess Connett

We were aware enough of each other’s presence to feel guilty for not keeping in touch, but not enough to do anything about it. Our relationship was lost amongst changing email addresses and fashionable new communication platforms. In our drive for more efficient ways to talk, we slowly grew silent.

The relationships we maintain – me included – purely through Facebook or Twitter or Tinder, are fragile. They leave no trace in the world. I’ve kept all the envelopes, stuffed with letters and drawings that my pen pal sent my childhood self, as a physical reminder of our close friendship. But, with people I’ve met online and never actually got around to meeting in real life, there is virtually no physical evidence of our relationship. They have faded away into the background, to nestle with the other 600+ Facebook friends that I never interact with, but who I look at every now and then and think, ‘whatever happened to you?’

Online, my interest in old friends’ lives has been reduced to posting thumbs-up symbols on funny statuses. Even the most heart-rending statuses get scrolled past.

Without seeing people face-to-face or taking the time to talk – really talk, about the things that matter – friends drop off the radar. Their messages go unread. My interest in their life is reduced to a thumbs-up symbol on a funny article. Online communication enables us to tweet at celebrities we fancy, or share our gym routines with the world, but you can’t hug someone via Facebook. You can’t express the pain of losing someone through an emoji. Even the most heart-rending statuses get scrolled past. We need to understand the place of online communication, and use it as a tool, not a replacement for real life.

Go out and see people. Leave your phone at home. Stop typing and start talking.

Do you agree that social media has changed the way we communicate? Do you long for the good old days like Jess? Or would you hate a world with no online ways to chat to people? If you’re in the Twittersphere then let us know @rifemag – or you could send us a letter and make our day!

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