Digital Relationships

This post is my entry for February’s IndieWeb Carnival being hosted by Manu.

I’m part of a unique generation exposed to the early days of the web communities, but well after what I would consider my formative years as a child. I was in my mid-teens when I became exposed to the Internet”. I grew up making things with my hands, playing outside and battling my brother for endless hours on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I had a penpal who lived in a far away place. We only had relationships and digital was mostly an adjective used for displays that were no longer only analog.

The first bits of my online existence began with Yahoo! chatrooms and online forums. I’ve been a geek my whole life, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that evolved to IRC channels, ICQ and AIM chats, Myspace and so on. Zoom to now and various aspects of relationships are being overrun or overruled by digital tools and platforms. I’m still a geek, but one with a much firmer grasp on the mechanics of what healthy digital reltionships mean for me and my relationship with digital platforms that support them.

All that serving as background, in the rawest sense, if the digital term is merely framing for how you initiate and sustain relationships with other humans, it could be explained simply as evolution of medium. We no longer write the majority of our communication on paper to send by mail the same as previous generations ceased stretching animal skins or looking for a flat slab of stone to draft a message. Evolving to email felt novel in the same way that typewriters felt novel to those writing everything by hand. I think in that regard, digital communication medium relationships have much the same pitfalls that other more analog mediums had. My penpal could have included a picture of someone else and said that it was them, though I don’t think it happened as often as deception or misrepresentation does in digital mediums.

This brings me to my current feeling on where things can evolve beyond the boundaries of ease or efficiency. Typing was faster than writing. Drafting an email is faster again. Having a generative AI platform write a letter feels like a fascade. Sending a message to someone that may actually be generative AI is the moment that the coyote looks back and sees the roadrunner standing on the edge of the cliff and it dawns on him that there’s nothing beneath his feet but air. If digital is merely medium and methods, but relationship is still the term that gets the emphasis in the phrase, it’s my opinion that time marches on and I’m the beneficiary of many relationships that spawned and are fostered by a digital component. I have several digital friendships that have never crossed the boundary of in-person interaction. I have some that have never even crossed the boundary of email, which is perfectly fine for me. None of these relationships are ones that I think define much for me beyond community, career and camaraderie. My relationship with my wife is one rooted in in-person conversations and moments of physical connectedness. The digital aspects of our communication are supplemental, which feels like good balance with the scale tipped in the direction that makes us happy.

Again, these are my opinions and like most things, they may not be sound for anyone other than me. How a family sits around a table in public all staring at their phones carrying on reltionships digitally with everyone other than those sitting in close physical proximity is a tip of the societal scale that disturbs me. How others begin, navigate and end romantic relationships exclusively with digital mechanics confuses me. The fact that our world seems to be trending toward more technology that replaces the relationship with more digital depresses me. Evolution is going to happen in spite of any attempts to thwart it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t the opportunity more carfeully define the trajectory of that evolution.

More relationships with people, supported by healthy relationships with digital means is my own goal. What does that look like in practice? Meals with family where we look each other in the eyes and communicate verbally about our feelings. Physical interactions with other humans when the lives of said humans support it. Lots of emails. Lots of messages and group chats in Messages/Telegram. No social media” as it has been defined by platforms like Instagram, Facebook, etc. No AI pals. No chatbot chums. Just more people like yourself that read a post like this and decide you’d like another digital relationship in your life and click here.

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