Twitterers… can trick the brain into thinking its having a meaningful social interaction, while another (ancient) part of the brain “knows” something crucial to human survival is missing. – Kathy Sierra
They promised a friend, but delivered a performance. – Sherry Turkle, “Alone Together”
I’ve been trying to think of the best way to come out with this thought I want to express here. It’s certainly partially drawn from Ms. Turkle’s TED talk, and her book (which I highly recommend, but not on Audible; the narrator sounds as inhuman as the robots Ms. Turkle describes). It’s also drawn from personal experience, from relationships that were sometimes built up and also degraded by the same social media.
But I’d like to find a way to explain it in a clear metaphor, and I think I’ve got it.
Social networks are the gravy hose.
Succulent Sticky Seductive Sauce
It’s really simple. Relationships need nourishment. They need the basic building blocks of presence, communication, compassion, blahblahblah you know all that.
And every once in a while, you like to have a little sumpn’ sumpn’ on the side. Something extra, just to add that little bit of extra affection. The note in the lunchbox, the extra kiss on the cheek, the squeeze on the hand. The “I love you” out of the blue, for no particular reason.
A relationship without those kinds of things can certainly do fine. In these parts of Wisconsin there’s the legend of Ole & Lena, who were married for 30 years before she finally burst out “Ole! You told me you loved me on our wedding day, but not once since then!”
Ole is said to have looked at his wife with a grave Norwegian expression, and replied, “Well, if it ever changes, I’ll let you know.”
That’s not the kind of relationship most of us aspire to. Aside from the meat – sorry, vegetarian readers, I meant to say the “protein source” – and potatoes of a relationship, it’s also nice to have a little gravy now and then.
That’s what twitter is: 140 characters of clever, affectionate, witty gravy we can share among friends, devote in that private sexy DM to our lover, touch briefly our extended family with that cute picture we just posted to our Facebook feed.
What if that were all we had? Would that sustain a relationship? Could it build one, could it nourish one?
No. Of course not. No more than a person could survive on just a spoonful of gravy a day.
Sucking on the Hose
What we have with our tabbed browsers, chat clients and always-connected smart phones is worse than a spoonful of gravy a day. It’s a hose with a never-ending supply of Social Media Gravy, and it tastes so good. When we’re hungry, there’s a simple choice: we can either suck on the hose a bit, and both give our taste buds (or endorphins) a jolt and even feel full. That’s much easier than trying to stop, cook a pot roast or some yummy barbecued seitan and mashed potatoes with garlic and butter.
That’s work. That’s making an effort, maybe having to go to the store, worrying about dirty dishes after, or even the possibility that whoever you’re sharing it with won’t like it. But almost everyone likes gravy – and if someone doesn’t, you may even find yourself eating with them less often, because it’s much easier to hang out with someone who reaches for the gravy hose as often as you do.
The worst part about it is that with a gravy hose, you won’t starve to death. Your body will change, your health may atrophy, you may, on some level, miss those nutritious meals and the sense of accomplishment that came from preparing them, from getting them right.
But the change may be so gradual that it may take quite a while to realize that the relationships that are only nourished through social media aren’t very nourished at all.
Don’t get me wrong. The gravy hose is a miracle of our time, and used judiciously it has a lot more potential than anyone ever realized. The problem is when people feel that retweeting a picture of the Arab Spring is as meaningful as actually marching in Egypt. Or that an IM of “Hope you’re having a good day” is a replacement for an actual hug and “How was your day?” accompanied by actual listening.
Use your gravy hose wisely. A life without gravy is a life half-tasted. Use it in new and unusual ways; a gravy slip-n-slide, putting out forest fires, making beautiful dripping art off of public bridges.
And as the metaphor dies, take a look at your own intake of media. Some of it nourishes. Some of it is gravy. I know that finding the balance is one of the biggest challenges I have. Because gravy tastes good.
But love tastes better.