I have a FailWhale T-shirt, you see.

When I read Clive Thompson on How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense I think I whooped aloud. I know I went around telling everyone about it. This, this managed to explain why I was so attached to my Motorola Q, why I loved Twitter, why LiveJournal downtime made me twitch.

Social proprioception.

Proprioception is “the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body.” (from Wikipedia.) It’s how you know where your foot is without looking at it. It’s the sense that gets flummoxed by the rapid growth of adolescents, the malfunctioning of which leads to spilled glasses at dinner and inadvertent black eyes while horsing around.

Social proprioception then, by analogy, gives “a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.” (Clive Thompson, Wired magazine.) What it lets me do, more than anything else, is maintain an emotional bond with people I have never met and cannot touch. Humans bond through many things, but touch is one of the strongest. Failing that connection, we rely on an as-yet-unexplained and almost telepathic ability to read human facial expression and body language. When we cannot touch and cannot see and cannot hear the nuances of voice and tone — when we can’t hear the smile as we speak or detect the stuffed distant tone of suppressed hurt —

Stripped of all of that, relationships over distance consist of words.

Any relationship is a thing constructed between people, an agreement. But an online relationship is a poem. An essay. A work of fiction. It is words piled on words, perhaps a photo or a short vid, perhaps a song. A relationship — any sort, but especially friendships with their lack of clarity, the absence of clear expectations, and the muddled cultural ambivalence about the importance of friends vis-a-vis lovers — a relationship online is made of communication.

There are all sorts of ways language online can be used to increase intimacy. Language can be rich and detailed. I can, for instance, describe my surroundings exactly, perhaps add pictures. You can do the same. We then can refer to our common understanding of location to insert ourselves into the other’s world. “I lost my glasses,” I might say. “Did you look under the books on the nightstand?” you might ask, though you’ve never been within 500 miles of my house.

Language can be personal, private. I can tell you secrets. Or, perhaps not secrets, but information privileged. About my feelings, my health, my money. About my time. About sex or drugs or the lies I tell the people around me. If you do the same in return, we share a connection with each other during boring meetings, while grocery shopping, while supposedly doing work. We are engaged in active intimacy that no-one around us can see; a secret, probably a naughty one, and gotten away with in broad daylight in front of everyone.

Language can be constant. Language can be constant, and that brings me to Twitter and social proprioception. During the course of my in-person day I can tell how the people around me feel. Broadly speaking, of course. But we sigh, or stretch, or mutter, or grumble. We respond snappishly, we are playful, we are worn. It’s a constant stream of unavoidable information about our fellow human beings, whether we like it or not.

I like it. I like the constant light breeze of social information over my eyes, my ears. (I dislike smelling my fellow humans, but that’s neither here nor there.) When I want to know you, and you are 900 miles from me, I cannot see you stretch and gaze into the distance, cannot see you hop up to go get a snack from your desk, can’t see you hauling the stacks of comics and books from the middle of the floor, can’t see you play with your cat or dog or child. That information is gone from me — unless you use words.

Twitter. Twitter, with it’s endless low-importance stream of data, spiked occasionally — much like face to face contact — with information regarding an emergency.

You got up, tired. The drive to work was short but the roads are slick. Work was fine, but the mid-morning staff meeting was a little tense because the boss is out of town. You skipped lunch, but enjoyed the cake someone brought in for a birthday. After work you thought about getting groceries, but stopped for coffee and a book at Barnes and Noble. Now you are watching America’s Next Top Model, and you are laughing at me when I say I find the show freakishly incomprehensible.

I miss Twitter when it is down. I miss it because I miss my friends. One could say, with some truth, that I would be better served by making friends locally and not relying on technology. But I think the world is not moving that way. I have local friends, I have long distance friends, and as technology improves it gets easier and easier to feel the shape of their lives across the miles.

8 Responses

  1. Dude. If LiveJournal were up right now (friggin data-center move) I’d be sooo blogging a reply to this. So I give short form:

    I never would have moved out to the outer darkness of the PacNW if I had to rely on my letter-writing skills to keep in touch with my MN friends. Social networking has made it tolerable.

  2. This is a fantastic post, and I think it really hits the nail on the head. I get twitchy if I’m not in that contact — I NEED to know how my friends are doing.

    But by the same token, I often feel my communication becomes oddly one-way. The thing about online social networking is that you’re sending your thoughts out into the ether, and you have no way of knowing how many people are reading them. I have a bad habit of thinking I’m close to someone because I’ve learned so much about them, and then I realize that they barely know who I am because I send so little out in return. For all the great things about twitter and LJ, I sometimes wonder if they lead to a dangerously false sense of closeness.

  3. Verbal grooming. It’s what allows us weird two legged primates to maintain such large social groups while still doing the day to day stuff. Now we do it virtually.

    Thanks, this was thinky interesting.

  4. @talkswithwind You’re not the only one I know for whom the ease of distance contact factors into decisions.

  5. @Jennifer YES, yes, yes. I broadcast, EVERYTHING, right? Well, there are people who follow me who don’t. And, it’s happened more than once that I’ve cut someone from a list and they have contacted me, saying, “but I really feel like we know each other, and I’m hurt.”

    And I’m like . . .. no, actually, we don’t know each other. You never tell me anything.

  6. @aquila Verbal grooming!

  7. This is entirely too erudite for me. I’m going to look at Lolcats.

    Just kidding. Brilliant.

  8. @Pat Cadigan :grins: Twitter, it’s not just about lunch!

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