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The false intimacy of our age

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I was searching YouTube the other day for a Jason Isbell song I thought a LiveJournal friend should hear. I found the song, and while I was listening to it, I scrolled through the listener comments and spotted this one:

Jason,Your the reason I play_ guitar and write songs. But most of all id like to thank you for saving my life in a lot of ways. I will always take playing for a room of 15 drunk guys on hard times and connecting with them, over making radio bullshit. i dunno what life has in store for me, but i hope its a life as a working musician, getting by and helping people through rough shit. Shit that your music has helped me through. Thank you Jason, keep playin for those who understand, leave the rest.

Setting aside its sincerity, the comment made me wonder: Did the writer think his words would reach Isbell? I hope they did, but my hopes are faint because of the false intimacy of social media.

Admittedly, I have a limited perspective. I am on Facebook, although I rarely visit it, comment on other people’s statuses or tell people I “like” something or someone. I have a LinkedIn profile, but all I do is say OK to anyone desperate enough to want to add me to her or his network. I maintain this blog, which I post to in bursts—not the best way to attract and keep readers. My credibility as a critic of social media is shaky.

Even so, the concept of false intimacy rolls around in my brain like a marble rolling around in a bathtub. The rolling marble got particularly loud one day this spring. The university where I teach puts on a sports symposium every other year, and this year, one of the panelists was someone whose writing I’ve followed and admired for years. I spent 90 minutes alone with him as I drove him from the Buffalo airport to the university.

I thought his writing had given me a pretty good idea of what kind of a guy he was, but he was as charming as a canker sore. I tried to get him to talk about work of his I was familiar with, but it just annoyed him. The trip was so unpleasant that I told the symposium organizer to find someone else to drive him back to the airport the next day.

This leads me to wonder how well we know people who exist to us only as words. I like to think my blog friends would find that if they met me, they would see my online personality was just an extension of who I am in person. At least I hope that’s the case. I don’t know, though.

This knowing-but-not-knowing idea resurfaced a couple of weeks ago on Facebook. I received a friend request from a woman whose name I didn’t recognize until I dropped the name after the hyphen of her last name. It turns out she was a classmate from high school. Her friend request puzzled me because I don’t remember even speaking to her back then—that’s how different our orbits were. When I replied to her request, I said it was “good to hear from you after 40 years.”

She wrote back. She has had a distinguished career and might be someone you’ve seen on TV or read about. She asked the usual questions about me, and then our online conversation faded. I told her I’m always glad to hear success stories involving our classmates, so I was glad she reached out and had done so well. Even so, I still don’t know her much better than I knew her in high school.

The question is, Why did she reach out? To put on the other shoe, why did I hope my response would prompt a reply?

I suspect it’s because we want to be in touch. We seek significance in our lives, so we post snippets of them on Facebook, we write about them on our blogs, and we tweet them—and we’re gratified if someone responds. A blog post that gets zero hits feels like failure.

We constantly whip out our cell phones to see whose message we’ve missed. Once I post this, I’ll begin checking to see who responds, and how quickly. We want to be wired, networked, in on the conversation, even if the conversation has the substance of meringue.

Because the internet makes it so easy, we reach out to musicians, authors and other people we don’t know. The chances of reaching them are far better than they used to be, and from experience, I know how gratifying it is to hear back from someone whom we respect, even idolize to a degree.

I once emailed a writer whose work I had read in The Sun magazine. I told her how much I admired her short story, but I also told her how reading it deflated me as a writer because she was much more talented. Quite unexpectedly, she responded with encouraging words. Several months later I read another story of hers, and I emailed her again, thinking she wouldn’t reply and might think I’m a 59-year-old fanboy. Instead, she replied how much she appreciated my comments because her piece, in her words, “cost me a lot” emotionally. Had this exchange happened 30 years ago, it would have occurred at a snail mail pace, which would not have been nearly as satisfying as our wired world’s instant gratification.

We cannot grasp how many people know about our online personalities (hello, NSA), and as a result, when we write, we can’t answer one of the two basic questions a writer asks—“Who is my audience?” Nor can we, as an audience, truly know the writer. On the car ride from Buffalo, my favorite writer turned out to be a dick; the short story writer turned out to be someone whose responses were unexpectedly sincere.

Maybe the person who posted the YouTube comment to Isbell got a degree of satisfaction from it. After all, we never can know if someone has read a comment and simply not responded. So we continue to reach out to expand our network, to learn more about people we know only superficially, and we hope they live up to our expectations. This is one way we try to make our place in the world a little more certain—but in our age, such certainty is elusive.



( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 6th, 2013 09:28 pm (UTC)
Years ago Auntie Anne and Uncle Earl had a little old lady tennant who was a died in the wool southern democrat, who had a picture of Jimmy Carter (and one of JFK of course) hanging in her living room. She was about to turn 90, so thinking it would be a thrill for her, I wrote Mr. Carter a letter asking if he could send her a birthday card. I didn't think it would go anywhere, but lo and behold, it did - he sent her one. Her reported response when it arrived a few days before her birthday? "Well he could have at least sent it so that it came on my birthday!" I was thrilled that Carter responded to my letter nonetheless. He even signed it himself. She was a crotchety old thing.
Aug. 6th, 2013 10:02 pm (UTC)
It's people like that for whom the phrase "get a cramp in your heart" was invented.
Aug. 6th, 2013 11:48 pm (UTC)
For the past four years I have gone to Jones Memorial Hospital to speak with the families that have lost a loved one in the past year and donated the organs of their departed loved ones. I consider this a most difficult, but necessary obligation to these families even though they are in no way related to my particular donor families whom I have never met and will never meet. Imagine how difficult it is to reach out and connect with these grieving people who have lost a loved one in such a tragic manner and to stand before them as a Phoenix Rising from the ashes of their despair. There is always a magical moment when I tell them I consider them my donors as well, that the act of unconditional love they performed for another, they would surely have done for me. It is hard to imagine the person that has received their loved ones gift of life and hard for me to imagine what kind of people make such a benevolent gesture in their darkest hour. The difficulty is that sd I stand before them I often feel guilty about why I was saved and the donors were not. (a discussion I have with myself daily)…But these families let me off the hook. The diversity in donor families is amazing making me realize that in the truest sense we are really only on this earth for each other and the kind comments I receive afterwards lets me know that the real necessity of this obligation is for both of us, because we need each other if for nothing else but closure that in a very real sense never occurs, bit is the best we can get…As humans in times of trouble we reach out for any connection… loved ones, family, friends, co-workers, God, and sometimes to a musician whose vibe you are able to commune with…some of those you reach out to will respond…some you reach out to are merely a hope…and sometimes one of those hopes answers the call like someone did for you and for me-Holiday
Aug. 6th, 2013 11:54 pm (UTC)
Nicely said, Holiday.
Aug. 7th, 2013 12:43 am (UTC)
First, thank you for looking for the video for me! I've heard of Jason Isbell but wasn't familiar with his work.

I suppose every age has its peculiar methods of communication with people we aren't actually close to but feel we would like to know. I imagine that Dickens and Thackeray got notes & letters from fans or people they passed in the street. Then when telephones came along, famous people suddenly found themselves having to deal with phone calls from people they knew in third grade.

Television and radio brought celebrities right into homes, and that gave people a peculiar sense of closeness with celebrities that was not shared by the celebrity in questions. When Carroll O'Connor died, Jean Stapleton got many condolences from people who thought they were actually married.

So here we have the internet, where it is possible to click on a Facebook page and think you are actually sending a message to a famous person. Look at the forum section for any celebrity and there are comments asking for books, recipes, advice. People are unaware that these things are handled, for the most part, by the person themselves.

(Confession: I made a comment on Midge Ure's page (Ultravox) about his book and he actually did thank me. I've saved that piece of communication.)

I had a discussion a few months ago about younger people who constantly text everyone they know, saying they're at the movies or eating a pizza or whatever, and I said, "But I don't want to know what everyone is doing every second, and they don't need to know what I'm doing every second." Apparently, though this IS the new intimacy.
Aug. 7th, 2013 02:26 am (UTC)
I never knew that about Jean Stapleton.

If I were in a position to interview musicians, authors and actors, the first question I would ask is, "How well do you think your readers know you through your work?" I once heard Bob Dylan complain about fans who would approach him acting as if they knew him.

And as weird as this sounds, I have always disliked Kevin Bacon because of his role in Sleepers. I know this makes no sense.

Aug. 7th, 2013 02:55 am (UTC)
I read an interview with some famous person - I've forgotten who - who hated Sam Neill after seeing him in "The Piano." She said she knew it was a movie and he was acting, but also said, "What a pig."

I once overheard a woman complaining bitterly about visiting Universal Studios and seeing Michael Richards. She said she said, "Hello, Michael!" and he ignored her, and from that she decided her was a no-good, horrible, stuck-up person. (This was before Richards became notorious after his rant.) I was amazed at her presumption.
Aug. 7th, 2013 08:35 pm (UTC)
I saw Steve Earle in concert a couple-three summers ago, and he said during the show that he'd hang around afterward to sign CDs and have photos taken and such. I was standing in the back of the venue, and on his way to his meet-and-greet, he walked by. "Thank you, Steve," I said to him. He looked at me but didn't reply. I figured the "thank you" comment threw him because he didn't know me and therefore didn't know why I was thanking him. But I would go see him again in a heartbeat.

I stole this idea from John Lee Hooker. On his Mr. Lucky album, John Lee performs the title song with Robert Cray. As the song ends, he says, "Thank you, Robert." And when I saw Robert Cray a few years ago, I saw him walking back to his tour bus and said the same thing to him. He didn't reply, but no big deal—he's probably got folks talking at him all the time. And Cray was tremendous when I saw him in concert earlier this year.
Aug. 7th, 2013 04:37 pm (UTC)
A couple of my friends from school hate—and I mean hate—the actress Scarlett Johansson. "She always plays a slut," they say when I ask why. "She just has that air about her, like she's going to sleep with someone's husband."

It infuriates me—I don't particularly like Scarlett Johansson as an actress, but I feel the need to defend her when the topic comes up. How can you hate someone for a role they play? You can hate the character, but hating the real-life person? Ugh.
Aug. 7th, 2013 08:44 pm (UTC)
Kevin Bacon aside (see my earlier comment), I am good at not confusing artists with their roles. I have no idea what kind of person Jack Nicholson is, for example. Is he the guy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or the guy from The Shining? Maybe just a sliver of both, but not enough to know him in any real sense. And how about Kate Blanchett? The first movie I saw her in was Veronica Guerin, which I strongly identified with because she played a journalist. It was really weird seeing her in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the most recent hobbit movie. And my favorite movie character of all time, Agent Smith from The Matrix, also had a role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now **that** was weird.
Aug. 8th, 2013 01:45 am (UTC)
Forgive for responding with articles, but two came to mind after reading this post.

1) The internet's war against creatives http://penny-arcade.com/report/article/swimming-in-a-sea-of-shit-the-internets-war-against-creatives It may be difficult to forge a positive connection, but negative connections are easy and unfortunately powerful.

2) This comic: http://kateoplis.tumblr.com/post/52492839335/huxley-vs-orwell
Aug. 8th, 2013 02:15 am (UTC)
Great comic, great articles, terrific embedded videos. Thank you for passing them along, Talbot. I hope all is well with you.
Aug. 11th, 2013 01:36 am (UTC)
Likewise. Glad you enjoyed them. I'm doing alright. Law school starts soon, so I'm gearing up for that.
Aug. 8th, 2013 01:47 am (UTC)
"As charming as a canker sore." What a great description!
Aug. 8th, 2013 02:06 am (UTC)
We aims to please.
Aug. 9th, 2013 01:00 am (UTC)
I feel like comments like that on a public online arena are half for the commenter's own benefit (the Internet confessional, blogging, etc. - like personal journaling via writing letters to a famous or fictional character) and half as an open letter to the world (which may happen to include the actual celebrity)... as you pointed out, there's always the chance that it could've reached the person it's addressed to, however miniscule.

As one of the "new generation", I have to say, this article pretty much sums it up: http://meloukhia.net/2010/09/my_friends_in_the_internet.html

I'm fairly introverted and shy, so I prefer to communicate by broadcasting to public internet forums (I may have slight exhibitionist tendencies >_>;; ) rather than trying to carry on one-on-one conversations - even via e-mail. Less pressure that way, anybody can read and/or respond (or not) as they please, and conversely, so can I. Hell, my LJ is basically a broadcast station for whatever I throw into it XD But anyway, my point is, I started Interneting around age 12 or 13, and two of the messageboards I was on pretty much shaped who I am now. We had heart-baring conversations, light-hearted game threads, and everything in between. The Internet lets far-flung misfits find each other and make our own community - I mean, I lived in Taiwan and was making friends with people around the world. (Third Culture Kid, what.)

But yeah, the way people write can be quite different from how they "actually" are in unfiltered real life. (I've had many people express surprise at the deepness of my voice IRL back when I used to make voiceposts on LJ, because I tend to write like a high-pitched flibbertigibbet fangirl XD) It's kind of like how you have facets for real-life interactions, though, y'know? Like, you have your professional face, your acquaintances face, your close-friends face... and they're all extensions of yourself, tailored to fit the social situation. (Unless you're a teenager, in which case you angst forever about "fakeness" and "realness" and false dichotomies thereof.) So online interactions reveal another facet of the person's personality/character that would otherwise be hidden... whether it's more "real" than their IRL persona I suppose is a matter of debate and/or depends on the person or situation. Certainly there's the perception that Internet personas are more "real" in terms of subjective evaluation of "realness"... in a way, I suppose the fact that you can't know who exactly comprises your audience kind of contributes to the "realness" of online writing. I mean, I write entries with a vague audience of "my LJ friends, probably, or at least a few of them" in mind, but anybody can read them and see things that I normally wouldn't tell any random person on the street.
Aug. 9th, 2013 02:50 am (UTC)
The article you sent the link to raises an interesting point about ableism, and I'm going to take another look at it and think more deeply about it. Thank you for passing it along.

What I like most about writing in a public forum like LJ is that it forces me to be real. When writers grind something out that's highly personal, they sometimes find answers they didn't know, or they sometimes force themselves to confront the truth. I don't know who reads my posts, or how many people do, but I owe it to them to be truthful.

I especially like your last sentence about "things that I normally wouldn't tell any random person on the street." I have posted about being bipolar. I have posted about being obsessive-compulsive. Those posts certainly conveyed more information, and conveyed it more effectively, than I could have done in a conversation with a friend or group presentation. My wife knows the whole story, but the telling of the rest of it has largely occurred right here.

Aug. 9th, 2013 01:56 am (UTC)
Very interesting. I've often commented on the "false intimacy" of today's youth, thinking that their online interactions/texting/tweeting are any kind of equal substitution for the face-to-face real thing. But. I consider some of the folks I've never met here in LJland to be true friends, and was thrilled beyond measure when I got to meet someone in person a month or so ago. So I don't know if it's a false intimacy, or just a new type of intimacy...I think about things like this a lot.

As far as the Isbell comment, I think there's a good chance it'll be read by the artist, because independent musicians are most likely without "benefit" of a corporate entity to run their media machines for them.

The whole "people from our pasts" thing, though, that one still stumps me. We talked about it some, how I accepted facebook friend requests from a bunch of folks I went to high school with but wasn't particularly close with back then and don't seem to have one blessed thing in common with them now. Why? Why was I so willing to reconnect with them? That one perplexes me.
Aug. 9th, 2013 02:13 am (UTC)
I tell students that they'd better practice face-to-face communication, get good at it and get used to it, because corporate life will shred them when they go to a meeting and don't how how to communicate with spoken words. Hell, it will shred them during the job interview process.

Of course, as a college freshman, I was so socially insecure that had tweeting and texting been around then, my vocal cords would have atrophied from lack of use.
Aug. 9th, 2013 01:24 pm (UTC)
Along the same lines...
...Jeff Miers' column in Gusto yesterday talks about backstage etiquette and how people feel overly comfortable approaching musicians/stars and asking too much from their exchanges.

People clamor around the stars, thrust things at them demanding autographs, snap photos, and generally treat the subject as if they are something to be observed, ogled, prodded and treated as a non-human entity.

The bowing and scraping thing gets old for the stars. I’ve been there enough to see it in their eyes. Most of them are incredibly gracious about the whole thing. They willingly participate in meet-and-greets, and try to give every person a bit of their time. They have become good at, as the song says, pretending “a stranger is a long-awaited friend.” The warmest and most welcoming folks I’ve met over the years – Bruce Springsteen and members of the E Street Band, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, Bruce Hornsby, Dweezil Zappa and (believe it or not) Marilyn Manson among them – display a degree of patience I’m not sure I’d possess in a similar situation. Most fans just want a handshake, maybe an autograph or photo, and then happily go on their way. Others want to linger way too long and act is if they have every right to demand some of the star’s time.
Aug. 9th, 2013 06:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Along the same lines...
If I were ever in a position to meet some star after a show, I'd shake her or his hand, say how much I had enjoyed the show (or was looking forward to the show), and then move on. Seems to me it would be unseemly for someone my age to come across as a fanboy.

But then again, I'd try to get a picture of me with Jeff Beck.

Oct. 27th, 2013 11:25 am (UTC)
False Intimacy
First of all your post and the replies are very interesting.
If the problem of knowing versus not knowing someone can be difficult face to face, ie an individuals real values may not be apparent until there is some kind of stress or strain... then is social media adding another layer to the already very complex exchange between two people.
Did the author that you took to the airport find his lecture or presentation terrible unsatisfying and was preoccupied with mulling it over while you were preoccupied with trying to 'close' a connection that had started for you a long time before when you were, however, to him a veritable stranger?
Does writing slow one's thoughts down enough to convey a closer resemblance to the real person or does it allow individuals to curate a personality? Would this have to do with self monitoring? Some individuals flow in and out of different personas depending on the situation. Does a 'high self monitorer' blossom on the internet but appear more false in person where the lateral shifts are somewhat more confined?
My mother would say 'you never really know someone.' Does the internet just detach us one step further from the possibility of knowing someone or does it increase our chances by increasing some of the 'openness' we demonstrate about information about ourselves?
My thinking is if you value honesty and are rather straightforward to begin with your online self may be more consistently perceived by others in person, but if you are highly complex or variable, or god forbid dishonest, then the web would seem to make the incongruence worse.
I also wonder, with so many sites, do people feel more connected with it, or less?
Oct. 27th, 2013 04:35 pm (UTC)
Re: False Intimacy
Thought-provoking questions. My take on them, in order:

• I tend to give someone the benefit of the doubt when she/he is under stress or strain. Those conditions warp our otherwise "real" personalities; people recognize and understand this.

• I took the author to campus from the airport in mid-afternoon. During the first few minutes of the ride, he was talking to his editor about his blog posts that day. He's based in Boston, and this was the Monday after the Marathon shooter had been captured, so he was bound to be tired, and I recognized that. Maybe he was just cranky-tired, but I was trying to talk about specific things he had written, and he wanted no part of it. If he had said something like "I'm really tired, so let's talk tomorrow," I would have been fine with it. But after sitting at his table during dinner later that evening, I became totally less than whelmed by him.

• Writing and re-writing on the blog reminds me of what Hemingway said when asked why he wrote and rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times: "To get the words right." Is this "curating" an image? An interesting question, but I think" rewriting (in my case, anyway) is more subtle than "curating."

• Finally, your mom said, "You never really know someone," and Rimbaud said, "'I' is an 'other.'" So we're all pretty muck fkd.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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