A Sound as Continuous and Dense As Stars

Michael Arrington complains again today that people are overwhelmed with email. Michael cites a venture capitalist who encourages people awaiting his email reply to befriend him on Facebook, but then admits he is even less responsive there.

“Someone,” Michael says, “needs to create a new technology that allows us to enjoy our life but not miss important messages.”

But if Michael wanted fewer messages, he could just switch to a private address without telling me what it is. Every time we write an email rather than call, or add another distant “friend” to Facebook, we choose a network over true friendship, communication without commitment. And usually, we’re choosing what we want.

This is a process that starts early: the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik recently wrote about the imaginary friend his toddler talks to on her toy-cellphone, usually only to say that she’s too busy to talk to him.

CellphoneAnd it began a long time ago. The critic Hugh Kenner speculated that the disembodied voices of modern poetry grew out of the invention of the telephone. What I grew up seeing as a way to reach out and touch someone, a previous generation saw as a paltry substitute.

And now that’s how I now see Facebook, as a paltry — but not quite dispensable — substitute. Facebook comforts us with the thought that we have lots of friends. And yet the prestige that this network offers is the opposite of security, that 8th-grade sense we got from knowing exactly who our friends were.

The “social utility” of friends on Facebook is different than other forms of friendship. Most of my friends’ Facebook updates have the quality of overheard cell phone calls: mundane, impossible not to listen for, really only half of a conversation, but also comforting. Someone stuck in Singapore for a year once told me that what he missed most was the English chatter of overheard conversations.

This is why I’ve stopped checking Facebook throughout the day, but then suddenly find myself, alone in the wee hours of the night, glad to see everyone there. The feeling it gives me was best described in Augie March: “Wherever it was dark there was this sound, continental and hemispheric, again and again, like surf, and continuous and dense as stars.”

Saul Bellow was writing about falling asleep to the chirping of insects, but now that sound is the buzz of our friends. Maybe the one-line updates of Facebook have just reduced communication to what we really need to hear, over and over again: “Are you there?” “Yes, I am (everything’s fine).”

(photo credit: Moriza on Flickr)


  • http://www.bluecollaragents.com/wordpress Trevor Smith

    This is so true. I often wonder if we have replaced intimate relationships and friendships with superficial “friends” that can be added to our sphere at the push of a button. Great post Glenn. This is incredibly profound.

  • Chuck Conine

    You write well, Glenn. I miss the fun we and friends had on Maui back in ’05. – Chuck

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Chuck Conine! I just noticed your comment! Hope all is well in Southern California! And I just found you online so now we’ll be able to stay in touch…

  • Damon

    A good book to read about this is “Social Intelligence”. The author starts out saying that we have created these technologies that make us “seem” closer to each other (telephone, email, IM, social networks) but it actually creates a distance and separates us from the relationship.

  • Joyce

    Glenn, We’re back in HOT Arizona, but finally away from the tyrant! One of the girls “googled” you and we found this. I left a note with John with our email address. Hopefully we can keep in touch. I share your feelings about the wee hours of the night. I too, am a late night person. I miss the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach! I envy you! Joyce & “The Girls”

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