The article “The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: a procedure and some preliminary findings,” says nothing of the Internet, or of Facebook, which for years I had been thinking of as experimental interpersonal closeness. In the academic journey that consumed my twenties, I was in this town or that town, always a thousand miles from where I’d started or the last place I’d landed; I was never physically close to my most recent friendships. Facebook, as it had been explained to me in Spokane, was the only way I would be invited to parties, in Seattle it was a lifeline, in Kentucky it was an escape, in DC it was a barometer of the rest of America, in New Mexico it’s a glorified photo album. It was experimental because it’s a business with human commodities and the cynic inside wants always to divest. It is the inner cynic who says: The way you might run into the same person at cool parties, so too do you read the broadcasts of their lives at the hippest sinkhole on the Internet. But here they aren’t slurping a margarita and putting on airs, no, here they are their pure, unadulterated and curated selves.
I have learned so much more about acquaintances—the so-called “weak social ties” as we’ve been trained to call them—than the friends I once actually knew in person. In the experimental closeness generator feed, known as “The Wall,” I have learned intimate details about my acquaintances, such as their views on whether accused terrorists deserve a trial in international courts, that a relaxing Sunday night involves homemade facials of apple cider vinegar, orange peel, honey, and baking soda, or that their aunt is in the hospital for liver malfunction and they welcome prayers. I respond that I have read the news or walked outside or composed a humorous photograph. In this way, we practice turn taking, which is one of the cornerstones of a female friendship: tell me something personal and I will tell you something personal.
Today at the Facebook wall, one of my close acquaintances, the New York Times, suggested that I read Mandy Len Catron’s “Modern Love” essay, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” In the essay, Mandy Len Catron asserts that love is not just something that happens, rather, it can be a choice. She cites research by the psychologist Arthur Aron et. al. where subjects were asked to answer a series of questions through self-disclosing “that gradually escalate in intensity.” Their explicit task: intimacy.
Or at the very least they wanted “an interconnectedness of self and other. This feeling of interconnectedness is similar to what some researchers call intimacy.” To this end, they asked questions that were “escalating, reciprocal, [and jam-packed with] personalistic self-disclosure, and intimacy-associated behaviors.” These questions included:
- If you could invent a new flavor of ice cream, what would it be?
- Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
- When was the last time you walked for more than an hour? Describe where you went and what you saw.
- When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
- Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
- Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
Even though I am eager to admit publically that if Haagen-Dazs phoned, I would usher them to consider bourbon ball (bourbon, chocolate) or mint julep (bourbon, mint) or maybe mint julep bourbon ball ice cream, I wonder what one might actually learn from these sweet fantasies. Perhaps ice cream indulgences are only the warm-up for the kinds of stolen moments one senses in a rehearsed conversation, an unheard song, and a secret hunch.
And then comes the real meat of escalating connection: what do we appear to have in common? Say “we” each time; say “we” three times. Say “we” enough and we will become united through this intimacy-associated behavior.
But on the Facebook Wall, there seem to be more food fantasies than stolen moments. The latter must be provided by friends, who each year grow less willing to embarrass you by posting such a candid revelation, or by the disarray of information in the backgrounds of selfies and cat pics.
The script of procedural intimacy has changed.
Somehow, in the light of these questions taken from a social experiment, my acquaintances seem more distant. Lately their minds are blown by whatever text follows the viral and vaguely uplifting headlines, and they type a simple “Wow” in response. I remember staying up until dawn lost in fascinating conversations with the silent ones. Perhaps the algorithms keep them at bay?
I wonder if it is because I do not really talk to many people anymore (How, in my youth, did I have time to call people across time zones every week?), or if Internet culture has changed so drastically, but I don’t care about the lists, links, and quotes the individuals I follow are sharing. I’d rather read about what they saw during their last walk or, let’s face it, any of their secret hunches. I’d rather hear what their offline lives are like.
Today I decided to see if my Facebook acquaintances and I could regenerate some of our old procedural interpersonal closeness. In the “What’s on your mind?” box, instead of linking to photographs of “Tippi Hedren’s 400 Pound Housecat”/rescued pet lion, I copied and pasted, “When did you last sing to yourself?”
Of the first dozen responders, all had sung to themselves in the last twenty-four hours, and most had sung in the last five minutes. I imagined them singing at work, during the commute home, at their computers. I imagined how a tune fits into their lives and the powerful way it punctures silence. I reciprocated. I began whistling.