Social Distancing is Teaching Us How to Create Digital Intimacy

For those of us who grew up in the ’80s, the future of the phone was seeing someone’s face on the screen. This has been possible for more than a decade. Yet, instead of choosing to hear a person’s voice or see their face, we have opted to communicate with them via a text.

At the start of 2019, I set a new standard for friendship. I stopped making an effort to maintain one-sided friendships

  • One of my best friends from my early 20 never picks up the phone, sends a stupid Christmas card once a year and the occasional email. When I told a mutual friend, I wouldn’t invite him to my wedding when it happens, she was stunned. I told her “It’s not that I wouldn’t want him there. I don’t think he’d come.”
  • Another friend moved to California the previous summer. I wanted to see if she’d ever reach out to me if I didn’t make an effort. She never did.

Over the last 10 years, technology increased the breadth of our connections but reduced the depth of them. Social distancing is paradoxically teaching us to connect with more depth.

Degrees of Digital intimacy

We can achieve a social connection with technology. But we have to understand the varying degrees of digital intimacy.

Text

Whether that’s in email, instant messages or text messages, the written word is the lowest degree of intimacy when it comes to digital communication. You probably aren’t going to know much about me just from reading this.

Everyone reading this has sent a text someone else has misinterpreted or vice versa. Damn autocorrect is funny. But we can easily do irreparable damage to a friendship or connection when we only communicate via text.

Given that 95% of communication is non-verbal, it’s the worst medium for building a deep connection with someone.

Voice

As a podcast host, people in my audience are most familiar with the sound of my voice. When I personally called attendees of our conference in 2014 and said “Hey, it Srini” most said, “yeah, dude I know I’ve been listening to your voice every week for years.”

Hearing someone’s voice allows us to imagine what they’re like in more vivid detail. But it still has its limitations. After all, you’re probably not a phone sex operator.

Face to Face

I’ve been really fortunate to connect with some incredible people via social media. But my true friends are the ones I’ve connected with face to face.

We may not be able to touch or hug each other over a phone, but we always have the option to see each other’s faces. And we should be using that option more often.

  • The other day one of my listeners sent me a really long email filled with kind words. I thought about typing a reply, but instead, I recorded a video for him.
  • At the end of last year, I sent Alberto Savoia a video message telling him how much I appreciated his insights. And replied with a video.

Replying to anything via text is more efficient, but impersonal. Recording a video is less efficient, but much more likely to lead to a deeper connection.

Slowing Down to the Speed of Humanity

Over the last few years, technology has robbed us of our humanity. Social distancing is giving us a chance to claim it back.

I’m calling my parents more than I’m texting them and turning on the camera when we speak. And many other people seem to be doing the same.

I asked my friend Akira Chan to share his experience for our most recent podcast episode and this is what he said.

I’m finding myself wanting to have longer conversations to have FaceTimes with family members I haven’t spoken to in a long time, and avoid these digital shortcuts that I’ve been practicing. I think we all have for many years,

  • quick texts to keep updated with people,
  • quick replies on posts on social media.

It’s almost like we’re unpacking this spectrum of intimacy that we’ve been bypassing in other ways. And if there’s anything good that might come out of this and that we can hopefully take with us as a lesson, it’s this basic human need to communicate and connect and know who our neighbors are and actually sit down and have long conversations and to in many ways just slow down, slow down to the speed of humanity.

Perhaps this is how we should have been using technology from the start. Social distancing is teaching is how to create digital intimacy. Let’s make sure we don’t forget that lesson when this crisis is over.

p.s Tristan Harris I’d love to hear what you have to say about all this given your background.

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