(De)Coding Closeness

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.

 

7 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Cool that you were able to find or generate some kind of intimacy through a medium that — as you point out — feels less and less intimate every day. And how has the algorithm changed, or how does it continue to change? Why does it feel, more than ever, that I’m back in 6th grade?

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    Wow. (K, I had to do that, because I’m one of those people who posts articles and stuff on FB with single-word reactions. You’re right. It’s because I don’t want anyone to get too close or judge me too harshly. I barely know a lot of these people I’ve willingly connected myself to, after all. Facebook is a scary world of our own creation.)

    But seriously, an interesting note on music. I read your post while listening to Gregory Alan Isakov, which made the whole experience that much sadder and more true somehow.

    P.S. I’m glad I got to participate in your FB quiz. ;)

    • Amaris says:

      Hahaha on your “Wow,” but I am glad that you said more. It’s interesting that you bring up the idea of being judged, because that’s such an integral part of writing, of teaching, of going to the grocery store, of life. The fear of being judged is, I think, part of writer’s block. It’s stage fright.

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    Yeah, I also think that fear is what shapes cultures so easily. We don’t want to be too far from the norm, and who knows what normal is until someone else tells us we’re great or terribly wrong. It’s a difficult and conscious act to slough off fear to try and create something original. It’s a wonder artists survive.

  • I’m very aware of my internet persona not being the real me, or maybe more correct would be to say a version of the real me. The “me” that I don’t mind having scrutinized. Every time I post something online, I’m aware that the audience is so much bigger than just my followers and friends. Whatever I said is out there for general consumption and can be taken out of context by people who don’t know me or want to shape the statement into a purpose other than I first intended.

    All of that said, it’s weird how the people from my past that I am connected to are screened not by what our relationship was while growing up, but by whether or not they are online and by how often they post. I can’t help to think think that because our virtual “friendships” reshape our connections with people we met earlier in life, they will also alter our memories of those connections. A thought that is both alarming and intriguing.

  • CJ Schoch CJ Schoch 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.” –this makes me imagine the Facebook Wall as scribbles on a bathroom stall. Feels sadly accurate. There definitely used to be a time when my statuses reflected real life, joy, pain; now I mostly post my Instagram photos. Facebook’s a random hodgepodge of memes and unresearched claims where it used to be the only way I kept up with out of state friends (like you, that means pretty much all friends). But I can’t let go of it, bc as little as it gives me, it’s still better than cutting all those ties.

  • Nicole says:

    Great post, Amaris. I remember responding to your question and then seeing the article, as well. I believe the author married the person she was conducting the experiment with, no? How romantic, or terrifying!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *