Surfing Alone: Is Digital Technology Destroying Relationships?

“Have one long, slow dinner this week,” the author Keith Ferrazzi told an audience of New York media professionals at the recent MediaBistro Circus. This was an unsettling request. Many people in the audience were note-taking, blogging and Twittering coverage of a presentation that all but begged them to unplug, or at least to look at him while he spoke. The energetic, sentimental Ferrazzi, speaking from the pages of his book Who’s Got Your Back?, encouraged us to “enlist others” in order to improve our lives. The idea is stupidly simple, but particularly hard to master in a city driven by self-promotion. (He did not hesitate to remind us of this.)

Ferrazzi is preaching that the most valuable commodity in today’s world is people. He’s not the only one doing so. Robert D. Putnam, author of the controversial Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2001), created, which warns of a population of isolated millions and proposes ways to fix the problem. Sites like Meetup and Craigslist are umbrellas for community gatherings of an unquantifiable variety. Even President Obama’s fits in with this trend, encouraging community activism and making it all happen through a website.

Book: Who’s Got Your Back?

Author: Keith Ferrazzi

Publisher: Broadway Business

Length: 336 pages

Format: Hardcover

Publication Date: 2009-05


Image: gatherings include likemind, created by The Barbarian Group’s Noah Brier and PSFK’s Piers Fawkes. It’s an informal, coffee-centered monthly meetup that takes place in dozens of US cities. As The New York Times wrote last year, likemind’s emphasis is not on business card swapping but conversation, to the point that card exchange is either nonexistent or discreet. (“That Business Card Won’t Fly Here”, Alex Williams, 24 October 2008). Newer Web sites and apps, the most ubiquitous being Twitter, help unite strangers in shared experiences—even face-to-face experiences. So what are Ferazzi, Putnam and others so worried about?

The Internet hadn’t been around all that long when Putnam gathered the data that would comprise Bowling Alone, but today, the book can be viewed as an ominous portrayal of how people came to embrace technology the way that, decades ago, they might have embraced an old friend. At the MediaBistro Circus, Ferrazzi told of his mother, who has played cards with the same group of women friends every week for 45 years. He described this seeming feat with awe and pride, because Putnam’s book tracks the pitiful decline of that kind of social activity, and Ferrazzi has seen similar data.

The “electronic communications and entertainment” revolution “has lightened our souls and enlightened our minds,” Putnam allows, “but it has also rendered our leisure more private and passive.” He goes on to say that “television and its electronic cousins are willing accomplices in the civic mystery we have been unraveling, and more likely than not, they are ringleaders.”

But he emphasized the potential for “community engagement” via digital means and indeed, what took place on cell phones, smartphones and websites during the 2008 presidential election certainly qualifies as what Putnam, in 2001, called “hitherto unthinkable forms of democratic deliberation and community building.” Of course, the foundation for it was the 2004 election, when a movement to unseat President George W. Bush played out largely online. As Kathryn C. Montgomery writes in Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet (MIT Press, 2009), the Internet provided “each [campaign] effort with a direct means for reaching its target audience, but also fostering collaboration among the groups, and forging virtual coalitions through links and cross-promotion strategies.”

Book: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Author: Robert D. Putnam

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: 2001-08

Length: 336 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $16.99

Image: Internet surely encourages relationships that couldn’t have existed before: we now transcend IP addresses to reconnect with childhood friends, go on a date, play a game of ultimate Frisbee, or help register people to vote. The Pew Internet & American Life Project, ever optimistic, believes that we use the Internet to maintain relationships, mostly with our “core” associates, as it called them in a 2006 survey: family members and our closest friends. We no longer meet just at school, church, the grocery store, a PTA meeting or the playground. Pew said in that survey, “The more that people see each other in person and talk on the phone, the more they use the internet,” (“The Strength of Internet Ties,” 2006).

But as most of us know through personal experience, the Internet and telecommunications are gaining serious ground on television watching and are otherwise pervading our leisure time. Because they are so commonplace, they now have the ability to govern face-to-face communication, and they often do. How often do you plan to meet with someone via e-mail and text message? How often do you do so via a telephone call or a face-to-face chat?

In effect, technology has given Americans more freedom than the US constitution may have intended. Americans have so much control over their online experiences that they may want, or at least expect, the same control when they’re away from the screen. They use caller ID to avoid having unplanned and unprepared-for conversations. They text message to shorten the length of time they have to talk to another person. They e-mail to avoid the unpredictable flow of oral communication, or the time-consuming task of writing a letter. By extension, unplanned encounters—“the stop-and-chat” as Larry David calls it on Curb Your Enthusiasm—can be seen as an intrusion, or at the very least a nuisance, when before it might have been essential in forging and fostering a relationship.

Book: Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet

Author: Kathryn C. Montgomery

Publisher: MIT Press

Publication Date: 2009-04

Length: 368 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $15.95

Image:, besides our free reign over the Internet, makes these kinds of social abbreviations acceptable? Quite simply, online and on our gadgets, we are identified by static representations: numbers, photos, illustrations, a handful of fonts, and little else. No doubt beautiful love letters have been delivered via e-mail, but they have no sentimental, let alone identifying, features save for the “from” line and the content. If rendered into a physical object, the paper they’re printed on probably came from an office LaserJet. The font is invariably Times, Helvetica, or Geneva. In other words, it does not smell like your lover and it is not written in their hand. The emotional distance this kind of communication creates is making all forms of digital shorthand more acceptable.

If you understand the language the e-mail is written in—let’s hope it’s written well—it’s possible for it to have deep emotional resonance. But there are only a few cues to tell you that it is not a newspaper article or a blog post. The missive can be reprinted infinite times and deleted in an instant. Some things about writing, no matter the form, remain age-old: in an e-mail or text message, we key in things we might never say out loud.

But written communication has overtaken oral communication and lapped it. Oral communication competes for attention with screen time. Written communication competes for attention with instant messaging, Twitter, task managers, ads, music, and other browser tabs. You could print out the lover’s e-mail and read it in peace later. But you’re on the Internet, so you’ll likely do it now, and allow yourself to be interrupted ten times in the process.

Technology has established it as a luxury, rather than a disorder, that we do not as often have to deal with the physicality of people—to watch and be watched as facial expressions and body language unfold in reaction to words. Instead, we stare at phones and bring our laptops to bed. We give ourselves anxiety trying to decipher the tone of a text or the meaning of a tweet’s punctuation. Some relationships thrive online, only to be dismantled by awkwardness over dinner. Technology encourages us to be bold, but traditional social interaction leave us feeling awkward.

The physical equivalent of ignoring a Gchat is to stare at someone blankly after they’ve said “Hello,” then walk away. It would be incredibly inappropriate to do the latter, but is perfectly acceptable to do the former. In the physical world, we can’t snap our fingers and disappear, but on the Internet, we are invisible until we declare ourselves otherwise. This has bred rudeness, flakiness and even slander, mostly in the form of unanswered or sloppy e-mails, and comments and message board threads. The first two behaviors are more often excused, but the last, when it affects us, evokes emotions, but negative emotions. We are protected by the Internet, but we are not protected from it.

As the author Caleb Crain put it in a lecture for “The Internet: It’s Where We Live Now”, a 2008 series hosted by the journal n + 1, “tact…isn’t rarer on the internet, but in real life, tact is efficacious largely because audience members police one another to see that it’s maintained. Hecklers are hissed down. Thanks to anonymity, the odds of being punished for failing to use tact online are low to nonexistent.”

In a final chapter of Bowling Alone called “What Is To Be Done?” Robert Putnam suggests that the “new tool”—the Internet—could help us if we showed it how. He seemed to understand how complex and intricate it, unlike television, would become. “The key, in my view, is to find ways in which Internet technology can reinforce rather than supplant place-based, face-to-face, enduring social networks,” he said.

Microsoft’s framing of its new search engine Bing as a “decision engine” is, at least from a marketing perspective, a step in this direction. Bing proposes to take the wandering and confusion out of the search experience. In other words, it helps people to get on and get off the Internet superhighway, and take action to get the information and go do something with it. But what’s interesting about the TV commercial for Bing is that in the ad, its searchers are asking other human beings for help. In response, the people give them robotic, irrelevant answers that mimic the imprecision of searchbots. The suggestion is that a search engine should be more like a person, namely, friendly and helpful. The reality is that search engines have greatly contributed to our isolation or, if you’re an optimist, our independence from one another.

In our idle entertainment and in our job searches, romantic searches, research, reading and scanning, we will continue to wander in solitude around the Web. Our job is to continually ask ourselves what we are doing, to borrow Twitter’s slogan, which seems at turns a taunt, a greeting, and an admonishment from God. Twitter is an anomaly in that it lets us mark our footprints for each other to walk in, even though those footprints fade quickly as a new tide of information washes over it. On Twitter, we are each other’s sherpas, guiding one another through the treacherous onslaught of information of varying usefulness. But it should be only one of many conduits to a “long, slow dinner,” not a substitute. Technology is seemingly limitless at this stage of human evolution. It’s up to us to put limits on it, and direct it to the best possible advantage for all.