Is our fear of the online world driving us further apart?

Is our fear of the online world driving us further apart?
New Romantics — While it was initially seen as a way of bringing us together, the Internet has become a place we approach with caution. In her second New Romantics column, Emily Reynolds explores why this growing wariness might be driving us further apart.

I took myself for dinner this week: a date. A strange mix of exhausted and elated, soaked to the skin from a thunderstorm, I ducked into an Italian restaurant in Soho to order a single glass of red wine and a risotto.

I was surprised by how nervous it made me. There’s a level of vulnerability in solo dining, sometimes even a danger. The idea that a man might try to speak to me was repellent, and I wanted to be left alone. But sitting with my own thoughts, no distractions, was terrifying to me. I was suddenly acutely aware of my physical form: no longer shapeless, like I was online, no longer able to melt into my phone or my laptop.

I very quickly realised that I was not alone at all. I’d been talking for days to someone I’d met online, someone who lived on the other side of the world. The conversation had veered between funny and filthy, tenderness and vulgarity, as we WhatsApped and DMed and voice-noted each other, sending endless pictures of the beautiful or banal things in front of us.

Taking a picture of my food and sending it into the void, I felt the connection flush through me and paused. Was I performing my own life for somebody else?

There’s a Margaret Atwood quote about male fantasy, on the near impossibility of escaping it. “Pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole in your own head,” she writes. “You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”

I thought of this quote as I sat there, alone but not quite, with the tangible shadow of someone else pressing against me. It’s not always a positive thing, after all: the panopticon of the male gaze, and of an online omnipresence, is often oppressive. The expectations can crush you: as my friend James succinctly put it to me, the knowledge that you can always talk to someone means you’re always considering what to say.

But at that moment, I treasured it. I treasured the feeling of being a voyeur in my own life, I treasured looking at myself with fresh eyes, with a new perspective. I treasured the person I was seeing when I did so.

And I treasured the simple, uncomplicated joy of connecting with another person four time zones away: someone I would never be beholden to, that I would never owe anything to, that I would probably never meet. Seeing my life reflected back through the filter of someone else’s made me realise how much I loved it; how happy I was.

We used to do this more. Ten years ago, when we first made MySpace accounts and happily chatted to strangers in chat rooms, there were no rules to what we could say and to who. There was a joyful unpredictability to it: talking to people from Pennsylvania one night and Seoul the next, genuinely random connections predicated on nothing more than you both having internet access.

Now, we’re more wary. Years of being ground down by bad online etiquette, by harassment, by abusive tweets; years of online dating, of being ghosted, of being left on read; years of hastily deleting posts that could probably get us fired. It’s understandably more rare that we open up, especially with someone who we might never meet.

Even on websites like Twitter, random connection is hard to come by. We follow people we work with, with the same interests as us or the same politics. The chance of something or someone genuinely surprising us is slim – something the slow decline of websites like Omegle and ChatRoulette can attest to.

In this systematic siloing of online spaces, we’ve lost something precious. We obviously need to keep ourselves safe online. But we might also benefit, sometimes, from opening ourselves up to the possibility of something more haphazard, more ridiculous, more jubilantly and pointedly meaningless. Life is full of unexpected tenderness and surprising joy, and we ought to grab it with everything we have.

Follow Emily Reynolds on Twitter.

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