I had two long distant relationships this year, one in DC, one in Hannover, Germany. I work in the digital space for a living so it was no problem for me to seamlessly shift from IRL (in real life) to digital life. I do it all day long. My German boyfriend was barely past opening email when I met him but managed, in the space of a short time, to direct message on Twitter, open a Dropbox account, begin skyping at all hours, and even made videos and opened a YouTube account. We hacked the tools to make them work for us and our time distance. Sometimes I’d wake to a dozen love tweets just as he might be going to bed. There was a kind of pause effect that I liked about digital love; it gave me time to think, to process words as a reader. I loved the idea that someone was sending small blips of poetry to me across an ocean as I slept. I adored waking to them, as though each day greeted me with possibility and sweetness, albeit in the glowing light of an iPhone in the early morning dark.
But the problem with digital relationships is that you effortlessly enter a world of fiction.
Even as I write this, there are thousands of calls being made between people full of hope, commitment, and a steely determination that their digital connection is as good as their connection in real life.
Don’t kid yourself. While our cross-media relationships hold incredible power–they do communicate our powerful emotions in words, photographs, and video but the subtleties get lost in cyber space: The small twitch of a finger, anxiously drumming a leg, a poker-like tell of inner conflict that is entirely missed as the face smiles in a pixelated mess of I love you’s, no really, I do’s.
There are no soft shoulders, no forgiving spaces to lean into on a couch, no hesitant moments in a kitchen before a meal where love can heal and eat in peace together. Instead, words can slam into you at 140 characters like a semi doing 90 miles an hour straight into a brick wall. Direct messages are direct alright.
It is also easier to lie and obfuscate in digital communications. One can get carried away with the fictionalized world of the social objects created to imagine a storyworld between you and your loved one. Pictures, video links, mp3 files, Dropbox playlists, Pins, and memos, even couriered packages all begin to shape and form the world you share. Connection, that is, wi-fi, takes on a life or death dependency. And it seems real, it seems like the best possible world, it is never boring or tedious; it is in fact often better than the real thing. No breath is exchanged however, not a single touch is explored truthfully.
Doubt is easily buried in emoticons.
As our globe shrinks to a :):):):):):) and a lmao or a bleakly typed ‘are you there?’, we should not confuse digital love with IRL love. In fact, I think dating sites should really come with a warning, like a pack of cigarettes: “Nothing you see, hear, feel, or read is real. Proceed with caution into this fictionalized world.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love rabbit holes, I really do love escaping into imaginary worlds. And that is the danger. I’m so easily drawn into fiction over reality that the slippery slope ends up in a lot of digital debris and very little to show for my journey. Good fiction should transform you, take you on a journey, and leave you having learned from the storyworld something that you could not have learned had you not entered it. But digital relationships aren’t always authored by a good writer and entering into any old story world is a risk.
Smell and taste and laughter and tactile moments cannot be replaced by digital communications no matter how advanced we are; the smell of just washed hair, the texture of hands holding one another, the visceral experience of sitting across from another person and feeling their truth without having to say a word, without, in fact, a single electrical outlet around for a 1000 miles.
Ironically, the more digital I make my life, the more I savour my IRL experiences. The exquisite pleasure of sitting with my old friends, my iPhone off, wine in hand, hearing familiar laughter, clinking of steak knives on plates, the smell of coals below a dripping grill, late afternoon sun warming my back, the lightness of just being in one place, analog style, with only my five senses to record the experience.
Be wary if you think you can port your relationship into and across digital media: There needs to be a time when the circus puts pegs down into the earth, the tent is raised, and real stories get told and real people sit with one another and share them. For me, without the IRL component, no relationship can be truly alive and experienced. Besides, I am pretty sure a kiss still wants to be a kiss and not an emoticon…