By Inês Costa, Agorama

A couple of months ago, one of my friends had her phone stolen whilst we were on holiday together. With no luck in retrieving it, she bought a new one and plugged it into her computer, to recover data from her last backup. The last time she did this was nine months previously, right before she met her current partner, discovering that she was now left with no digital evidence of him.

“I have no record of him on my phone – it is like he never existed!”

Relationships have been mediated through screens for many years now. From the monolithic desktop computers of my childhood, with a noisy, slow DSL modem connection, to the small, portable smartphones with permanent 4G connection and free Wi-Fi hotspots, Internet-aided communication has morphed and grown to adapt to these technological evolutions.

In the late 1990s and ‘00s, the social aspect of these online relationships had a spatial constraint. Internet connectivity was tied to a specific physical space where the desktop computer lived, thus limited to programmed encounters, much like one would have offline. I remember being fascinated by Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) and making use of early instant messaging tools, like AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) or MSN Messenger, as these two channels offered me something that I could not have access to offline – the possibility of communicating and interacting with people from across the world. This was a new sociality, which only took place from the comfort of my home and I saw as independent from physical daily contact. It was only later that the digital started spilling into physical spaces and vice versa; the popularisation of MySpace as model of networking is what, for me, started defining this tension.

With the arrival of the Internet to the palm of our hands through the introduction of smartphones and the massification of social media platforms came the blurring between public and private and online and offline spaces. Relationships now live in the balance (or lack of it) between these two contradictions. We engage with social media by both directly communicating with others and passively consuming their personal information, which can arguably have very opposite effects1. While scrolling through feeds might propel a passive analysis of the other based on the way they chose to present themselves, engaging directly opens possibilities of expanding our interactions with whom we wish to do so. There is a tendency to see a shift towards a model of, for example, dating, that relies on the physical space as a finality – apps like Tinder or Bumble, albeit encouraging hypervisibility2, promise the expectation of an in-person encounter. In line with this, messaging services such as Whatsapp are used as an exchange vehicle mainly for maintaining and managing existing relations – while keeping a record of our interchanges, whether sincere or orchestrated. This register constitutes part of the relationship and our memory of it, and it is as important as our physical interactions – understandably making my friend lament its loss.

It is strange (and rare!) to think of a relationship today that exists only in the physical realm – the ‘online component’ of constant connectivity, through sharing and storytelling (or the possibility of it) are intertwined. Are relationships now so mechanised by constant online contact and accumulation of information that they have lost all their ‘real feel’? Or is this online convenience positively enhancing our offline interactions? Media theorist Geert Lovink dispels any belief in regaining a sense of the social in social media, stating that “machines will not make the vital connection for us, no matter how much we delegate.”3 It seems that what is needed is to learn how to negotiate the use of social media and to understand how we engage with it when we are no longer opting to do so on our own accord – we are constantly logged in.

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1 See studies as, for example, Burke, M., Marlow, C. and Lento, T. (2010) ‘Social Network Activity and Social Well-Being’. Proceeding of the 28th ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Atlanta, 10-15 April 2010, 1909-1912 or Orben, A., Mutak, A., Dablander, F., Hecht, M., Krawiec, J., ; Valkovičová, N., and Kosīte, D., (2018) ‘From Face-to-Face to Facebook: Probing the Effects of Passive Consumption on Interpersonal Attraction’, Frontiers in Psychology 9.

2Term used by Andrew Keen to describe how social media sacrifices privacy for exhibitionism. See Keen, A. (2012) Digital vertigo : how today’s online social revolution is dividing, diminishing, and disorienting us. London: Constable

3Lovink, G. (2012) ‘What is the social in social media?’, e-flux Journal 40 (December). Accessed April 20 2019. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/​what-is-the-social-in-social-media/.