“So, what’s new?”
It’s little more than a conversational starter pistol — a trigger pulled as often by friends as by family — but one that increasingly signals the start of my anxiety. Because the answer, invariably, is “nothing.” Not a nothing covering up a variety of secret somethings, just that — nothing. Nothing that hasn’t already been said on Facebook or Twitter or GChat, anyway, or even on Instagram. The daily selfie has preceded the real self — or even replaced it entirely, as in the case of President Obama at Nelson Mandela‘s memorial — and like the aging couple with nothing left to share, our virtual relationships have desiccated their real-life counterparts. Because when all is said and done online, what left is there off-line to say or do?
No longer satisfied to lead lives of quiet desperation, we are causing a din. Millions of us digitally dish not only our daily exploits but also our thoughts about each one — usually more than once. Our status updates have morphed into proxies for our social lives to the point that many of our conversations are punctuated with, “I saw on Facebook/Twitter that you …” The spontaneous response is not to fill in the blanks but to ask, “Why didn’t you comment?” Even outside the confines of virtual reality, a discussion online trumps a discussion in person.
Where we do not use words, we use photos. Each sepia-toned image is worth a thousand dinner-date conversations. Pictures of people, places and things create illustrated sentences that would have previously been intoned over a glass of wine. Even off-line we tend to lean on our digital vocabulary, flipping through Instagram to describe a weekend, displaying a chat in order to relay it.
And with nothing of our own to share, we share the lives of others. Over Thanksgiving, a then little-known producer of The Bachelor got entangled in a catfight (which turned out to be a hoax) with a fellow airline passenger. The argument devolved into a midair tit for tat and culminated in a slap from a woman who was supposedly wearing a “medical mask over her idiot face.” With a story like that, Elan Gale would have won his family’s Thanksgiving. Instead, he live-tweeted each blow and won Thanksgiving for the rest of us. Unable to shame our own family members, we settled for shaming seat 7A with them.
That is not to say everyone shares in my conversation anxiety. Last week my boyfriend and I ate silently with my mother even though we hadn’t seen her for a month. In the interim, however, we had all frantically exchanged texts and messages like iPhone-carrying castaways. “We have nothing to talk about anymore because we already know everything,” my mother said as a matter of course as she sucked the marrow out of a chicken bone. At a party I attended days later, a woman I spoke to agreed that she found it progressively difficult to maintain a conversation with her friends. “There are definitely less surprises,” she acceded with a shrug. I almost prefer spending time with people I don’t know. That way everything old is new again.
Or perhaps all this is much ado about nothing, as my boyfriend says. “Although I have online accounts, I don’t waste all my good lines on the Web,” he recently said via GChat (what else?). While it is arguable whether any of my boyfriend’s “lines” are actually good, it is true that he is often the one buoying our discussions at the close of each day. Funnily enough, these are the odd times I do not crackle with anxiety. While my boyfriend searches his mind for anecdotes, I relax, secure in the knowledge that mine are all saved online.
Roberts writes about arts and culture for the Daily Beast, Salon, Slate and various other publications. A former online entertainment editor for the New York Daily News, she is now based in Toronto, where she is finishing her first book. The views expressed are solely her own.