In the digital world, to touch someone – to change their body, their mind, the way they experience the world – you don’t have to touch them at all.

In the digital world, to touch someone – to change their body, their mind, the way they experience the world – you don’t have to touch them at all.

In the very first of these columns, I wrote about physical touch, how a lack of it had wounded me so much. Sat in a hairdresser’s chair post-breakup, the feeling of the stylist’s hands gently massaging my head, I nearly cried: it meant so much to me to be touched.

Physical touch is important to us all: that’s been proven. Those who experience more affectionate or nurturing touch as children are less verbally and physically aggressive as adults, and touch can lessen the threat response in the brain’s limbic system. Hand-holding can even reduce pain. Anecdotally, we all know what an impact a hug or squeeze from someone we love can have on our mood, and the desire to reach out and hold one another can be powerful; moving even.

Though lack of touch can obviously be deeply painful, it’s also often used against our online relationships, their lack of physicality held up as proof that they mean less than the offline, are less real. But to argue that intimacy that takes place online is inherently non-physical is to misunderstand how these relationships take place, and where.

We tend to think that the relationships we build online exist nowhere in particular, floating in that curious intermediate place we used to call ‘cyberspace’. In fact, they take place everywhere: in our bedrooms, on the tube, at parties, at work. One evening earlier this year I left the house and walked around my neighbourhood, messaging somebody who meant something to me: it felt important to root the conversation somewhere particular, outside of my own head. It worked: I still feel his presence when I walk the same streets now, although we were never in them together at all. It’s just as painful as visiting the place we first met, tracing the route of the Ubers in which we frantically kissed.

Importantly, these relationships are deeply physical – they take place inside our bodies. When someone messages me to tell me they like me, I get the same rush of pleasure I do if they say it in person – a full, lush feeling that blooms inside my chest. Sexting isn’t remotely the same as sex, of course, but exchanging dirty messages with someone you fancy isn’t academic: you feel it in your body too. It’s not perfect, of course: sometimes the person you feel you’ve connected with is a mirage, a projection. But this happens offline too, one sexual encounter meaning wholly different things to different people. The problem here – again – is not the internet: it’s the way that human relationships function full stop.

And it goes both ways: our offline lives become rooted in the online as well. I’ve written before about the algorithms that serve us our heartbreaks, but it can go further than that. Google Maps highlights places you’ve already visited, neat little reminders of where we’ve been and with who. Our phones remember, too: this week I sadly scrolled past the name of a Bluetooth speaker belonging to an ex-friend, a painful reminder of a lost intimacy. I once tweeted about this: “a map of London based on the visited-once pubs, 3 am McDonald’s and ex-lovers flats my phone wifi automatically connects to when I go past on the bus”.

It was written flippantly, but there was something real there, too. At a glance, it might seem insignificant: a phone automatically connecting to a wifi network doesn’t seem particularly meaningful, something we might not even notice. But it anchors the online in tangible space, and vice versa. They living beside each other, not in opposition.

Physical touch is important in a tangible, measurable way: this isn’t a call to retire from life, and to talk only online. But as Hélène Cixous wrote in Poetry in Painting; “there are so many ways of touching without touching, without touching be touched, to be in the continuity of the real.”  To hear is to touch – to speak, to see, to feel. You can connect anywhere: when you pass someone on the street, when you call them on the phone, when you send a heartfelt 3 am WhatsApp message. To touch someone – to change their body, their mind, the way they experience the world – you don’t have to touch them at all.

Follow Emily Reynolds on Twitter.

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