I don’t enjoy texting. This will come as no surprise to those around me who often have to wait 3-4 business days for a belated response (should they receive one at all, eek), which inevitably begins: ‘sorry for the slow reply’. I can’t rely on the excuse that I’m not on my phone because the type of work I do requires me being online and available for most of the day, nor can I claim that I’m always exponentially busy because it’s very well documented how idly I spend my weekends. All circumstances point towards me being a swift responder - a professional texter, if you will - but years of being neglectful with my replies have led me to accept that I simply don’t like it. There’s something about communicating through a screen, measuring responses instead of conversing organically, off the cuff, from the chest, that dulls the true charm of chatting with a friend. That’s not to say texting is utterly without value - it’s the primary form of communication between myself and the people I love who don’t live nearby - but nothing beats face to face. Nothing is as good as the real thing.
This will likely divide opinion. Some people’s home screens are forever ablaze with group chat notifications, conversations with the same person spilling over into multiple apps and inboxes; others (like me) can offer a few droplets of textual response before the drought returns; others again won’t give a hoot either way. But considering how heavily we all relied upon technology to stay in touch with each other during lockdown, I have started to wonder if having easy access to our social circle makes it easier to stay in touch or whether it has the adverse effect.
Hear me out. One of the reasons I don’t enjoy messaging is because it always falls short of face-to-face contact; being able to look someone in the eyes, read their body language, touch each other, share an environment and/or experience: all of these things lead to better bonding and better connections. Messaging in any form feels like a substitute - albeit, these days, an essential one. That’s fine for relationships which can be substantiated with in-person contact, but our social networks these days expand far beyond those with whom we have regular contact. Through our phones and online presence, we swim in a sea of acquaintances. Hundreds of people we know just a little, thousands more accessible in a few taps and swipes. If you met a girl in the ladies’ toilets 15 years ago and you didn’t exchange numbers (wise), that was it - you’d probably never see her again. Now all it takes is an exchange of social handles and suddenly you’re privy to the personal life of a person you knew for all of 10 minutes. And you probably wouldn’t register them as friends, of course, but the potential is there. All it takes is a little text.
The sheer enormity of communicative possibility is overwhelming. I’ve started to see my phone as a portal of sorts, which I suppose it is - a portal to many different social circles at once, with many different conversations happening in tandem. Present is a wash of guilt; every time face ID recognises this mug as decidedly my own, I could, in theory, get in contact with hundreds of different people. There are more than I can count on one hand that I probably should. Wouldn’t it be nice to check on that old work colleague? It’s about time to message an old school friend too. What about Mum, how is she today? Nan? Next door neighbour? The person you’ve chatted to a few times about gardening and books? It would be nice to check in and you definitely could, probably should.
When I asked my pals on Instagram whether they felt digital communications made it easier to stay in touch with their nearest and dearest (invoking my largest social network for insights into their social networks), the answer was overwhelmingly yes. But a few people posited the opposite, offering a line of thought which ran parallel to my own.
“Having instant access makes you feel you’re in touch, often in lieu of IRL meet up or quality convos,” said Amy. “You only get soundbites of people’s lives.”
Jade said something similar. “I talk to people I probably wouldn’t normally online because I can (see here lol). But I really really struggle with the fact that anyone can reach me any time. I find it super overwhelming and it actually affects my relationships because I stop replying. Work, friends, family. I just stop looking at my phone altogether… It’s something I hate about the digital world. Even though I’m present, I’m not actually available. And don’t want to be!”
Jade and Amy touched on two things which rang true for me. One: that it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing a few texts here and a few story replies there constitute ‘staying in touch’ (which I suppose it does, but without something meatier and richier to add weight to the relationship, I find myself searching for the purpose of staying in touch - what's the point?). And two: that the access we have to everyone from our nearest and dearest to people we met on holiday when we’re seventeen makes digital communication extremely overwhelming.
It makes sense, brain-wise (that’s a sentence I’m sure scientists find themselves writing a lot /s). In her latest book ‘Why We Love’, Dr Anna Machin details the limits of our social circles. Our Central Support system consists of the 4-5 people we love and trust the most - these are likely family members and your bestie. Then there is the Sympathy circle of around 15, "so-called because research by psychologists Christian Buys and Kenneth Larsen in the late seventies found that this is around the number of people we can maintain intense relationships and feel genuine sympathy for” (page 14) - basically, these are our pals, people we’d “go out with for the night, to the pub, cinema or restaurant”.
After that, we reach the Affinity Group of around 50 people. These are extended family members, work colleagues, acquaintances - people you should really stop and talk to should you see them in the supermarket, but whom you probably try to duck behind a plinth and avoid because, well, who can be arsed to have catch ups in supermarkets?
Finally, we reach the 150+ circle. They continue beyond but 150 is an important limit because it constitutes “the maximum time and brain power we can commit to our social world. Our time is finite, our social budget must fight for space with all the other essentials of life: work, food, rest”. Beyond 150, we reach people we’d know by name but rarely speak to, people we recognise by face but wouldn’t know by name, people we follow on social media, celebrities and so on.
All of this is important for one reason: could digital communications and ease of accessibility be blurring the lines between our social circles, bringing the ‘unknowns’ of the 500+ into the 150 category and exhausting our brain’s power to communicate?
“Being social uses considerable brown power,” Dr Machin writes, “both to keep track of who has done what, to remember who everyone is and crucially the history you have with them [and] to stick to the rules of social interaction, including turn taking in conversations.” This remains true for digital communications, where the turn-taking of responding to messages is supposed to continue (although, evidently, not for all of us). It undeniably takes a lot of brain power to chat, but when you multiply that tenfold, open up multiple avenues for said conversations, blur the lines between stranger, acquaintance and friend and then funnel the entire delivery into one or two small devices - well, then it really does get exhausting.
It's a sort of communicative fatigue. The majority of what we do from our phones constitutes some form of communication, whether that's making and receiving calls, texting a pal, Whatsapping in the group chat, replying to emails, adding your two pence to a Reddit sub, commenting on TikTok, posting stories on Insta, tagging in to an outrageous Twitter thread, conversing with distant family members on FB messenger - the list goes on. Introduce gaming platforms and their chat capabilities, work programmes like Slack or Ryver, private platforms like Patreon where subscribers can comment and converse with one another and the iterations of communication continue to proliferate. But as each of these has seeded in gradually over the span of many years rather than being introduced in one big whack, I don't think we often consider just how many forms of recurring (and often constant) communication we're engaged in. There are *a lot*. And as they've continued to be introduced, as has my disinterest in responding in a timely manner; messages no longer carry with them a sense of urgency or the implicit requirement of response because their quantity and frequency is so vast.
It's impossible to treat every interaction with the same attentiveness - there simply isn't enough time or brain power to do so. Not if we want to avoid being completed absorbed in technological worlds, anyway. Naturally we establish a heirarchy of importance because there's only so long we can leave our bosses on read before we have to respond, but once those top slots are filled, is it any wonder we become indifferent with communicating digitally? It doesn't mean that we love our friends any less, that we don't care about the family we haven't checked on, that we're unappreciative of the social messages we receive - we're simply overwhelmed, with brains that have yet to catch up with the rapidly blooming social circles our digital lives encompass. Just because we can communicate this way, does it mean we should? Or is it sometimes better to wait and savour the pleasure of IRL interactions?
Increasingly, of course, our loved ones don't care whether we respond 'on time' or not. Most of us are in the same boat and we get it: we aren't entering the chat any more because we never leave it. But it does make me wonder what the future of building relationships looks like. The conventions of how we connect with people have already changed so much with the introduction of texting, snapping and DMing, and as they continue to do so, so does the value and importance we place in them. The experience teenagers have building relationships now is exponentially different to the one I had ten, twelve, fifteen years ago. For me, neglecting to reply or leaving a message on read is not only an act of self-care in distinguishing boundaries between my digital world and the one I live in, but it's also a defiance against feeling like I have to engage digitally to show that I care. I care, I love, I feel - I just don't want to have to show it through an illuminated screen for it to be valid.