Several years ago, I worked as a teacher in South Korea with a girl named Coleen. She recently wrote a blog about keeping in touch, and her post made me think. This is going to be a long story, but I want to explore how meeting people and keeping in touch with people has changed for me as technology has evolved.
I should start by saying that I have lived through a very special time in history, which I feel privileged to have experienced. I think all of us who were born in the 80’s grew up constantly adapting to new technologies, and we had no idea how to do it because no one had ever done it before.
Sure, people had to adjust to the car, and the printing press, and other advancements of that nature. However, it’s different with computers. Computers sped things up. They fundamentally changed the way we think about the stock market, the value of companies, keeping in touch, privacy, the nature of identity, and the relative value of entertainment and information. The pace of change sped up in the 80’s, and has not stopped since.
People born in the 90’s or later have only ever known a world where the pace of change is lightning-fast. The world will probably be this way forever now, where ideas spread across the planet in moments and memes surface in culture as instant reactions to events. No one in the future will understand what a slow, simple life used to be.
When I was a child, there was no Internet. I remember that I once sat at my grandma’s feet as she hand-addressed Christmas cards for all of her family and friends. It was a very long list since she was a politician from a big family, and it took her a week to get through them all. As she did it, she told me how she knew each person and about why they were special to her. I don’t say this to play on nostalgia; I just want to explain that things moved slowly in the 80’s. People had time to hand-address hundreds of cards and tell stories about the people they were for.
When computers got popular I was in on the ground floor with a BBS. That stands for “Bulletin Board System,” and it’s how people interacted using computers before the Internet. One computer could only call one other computer at a time, via a phone line. When the caller connected, they would see a personal page for the computer they were connecting to, called a bulletin board (like the first websites.) It was just scrolling text and ASCII images. There was also a section to upload files or comments, and I guess that was the first peer-to-peer indirect discussion via computer. It was new and exciting, and I loved it.
We used to have something called a GT, or Get Together, where people who ran various bulletin boards would meet up and talk about their computers, the content on their boards, and various other things. So for me, I learned to think of computers as a way to meet new people outside of my circle of family and friends. A person’s world used to be small. You could meet people at school, at work, or through people you already knew. Meeting people outside of your existing circles was hard. My grandma literally went door-to-door talking to strangers in person when she ran for office. It was the only way to reach out to new people outside of her existing circles. In my lifetime, with the help of computers, that began to change.
A new way to connect evolved. Not by school, local community, church, or other proximity-based means. Rather, you could connect with people based on interests. This was a big step for humans.
Very few people know this, but AOL was not the only option when the Internet came to computers. There was another company, called JUNO, which at first proclaimed that “the Internet should be free.” Some people had AOL accounts that they paid for, but I had a free JUNO account. On a side note, I am carefully following the concept of mesh networks and the conversation surrounding how to come up with a more democratic Internet by going back to peer-to-peer transfers, rather than routing information through corporations. But alas! That should be its own post because there is a lot to talk about there.
The point is: After the BBS system, the Internet came to computers in the 90’s and non-geeks started getting involved. New online connections were formed by people in saltwater fish forums and knitting chat rooms, and a new way to make friends and keep in touch with old friends was born.
My male friends were hired out of High School into jobs that paid six figures because they could code. However, the businessmen of the 90’s had no time for a girl, and so I watched my friends drop out to go work for banks and corporations, and I went to college instead. It was during an awkward stage when MySpace wasn’t on the scene yet, and people were mostly hanging out in AOL chat rooms or on private websites. I hung out on a website/discussion board hosted by a guy in the UK called Alexander King-Prime. It was a rudimentary scrolling social media page, and we (the members) traded ideas and writing.
Finally, in the late 90’s, social media really took off with MySpace and LiveJournal. This was back when people still used “handles” online instead of their real names, and so for a moment, the freedom of the Internet coexisted with privacy in a golden age. If it was up to me, we would go back to that. Instead of posting personal content, we would post thoughts and ideas under a screen name and mask our IP addresses. Privacy was cool. It’s too bad it’s over.
As I see it, privacy was killed by Facebook. It was Facebook that pioneered the idea that being part of the online conversation meant giving up your anonymity online. I resisted for a couple years in spite of multiple invites, because I felt extremely resistant to the idea of using my real name on the Internet. Our fear back in the BBS days was always that privacy would be taken away online and the government would start to ruthlessly monitor people. Facebook seemed intent on making it all too easy.
Unfortunately, I got cancer. I needed healthcare fast, and I couldn’t afford it in the US. So, I moved to Asia. Being 7,000 miles away from people I cared about meant having to use the Internet to keep in touch, and that meant joining Facebook. I tried to keep my account locked down pretty tight and never allow games access to my page. I checked my privacy settings once a week because every time they changed something, they made sharing information the default. I was fastidious in the protection of my content.
Then one day, I gave up. It wasn’t one of those gradual things were I slowly stopped being concerned. I went from rarely uploading any content at all and carefully guarding what I did upload to consciously deciding to give up my privacy online.
It was 2011 and I was living in Suwon, South Korea. I guess my decision was partially related to learning how the Internet worked in Korea (you have to use your national ID number to get online.) It was also partially about a realization that I missed home, and I did want to leave a digital footprint and be searchable online so old friends could find me. If I am honest, there was some vanity in it as well. I do like to think that my life is interesting enough that someone else might care about it. It may sound self-absorbed or narcissistic, but part of me does hope that I have something to add to this collective conversation that our species is having.
Several factors were involved, but the realization hit me all at once: I should just give up on my old screen name and my love of being anonymous online, and let my content be archived with everyone else’s. I surrender. In the modern world, we all make digital footprints. I have to learn to live in that world, instead of holding on to the privacy I once treasured.
This blog used to be to review places that I visited, but it was devoid of personal content. It was about art galleries, bands, and lovely places. Yet in 2011, I gave up on the idea that it’s just to share beautiful things with the world. It was a nice idea, but anymore, having a blog is about managing your online content. It’s a place to post the pictures that I want people to see when they search my name, and to post the details of my resume and my skills. This is where I promote myself, because that is what the Internet has become; a place to promote yourself and manage your online image. We sell ourselves now like corporations used to sell frozen burritos. I can’t change that, so my only option is to embrace it.
Giving in to using my real name online wasn’t enough for people. As soon as I joined Facebook, everyone started talking about Google +, Webbo, Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr, Fetlife, LinkedIn, Instagram, and a thousand other sites that they wanted me to use to “keep in touch.” I tried for a while to join the sites that people asked me to, but you have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. I like producing content for others in the social media format, but I just don’t like to waste my private time online.
I have lived a lot of places, and I have known a lot of people. I loved Burbank, Portland, Phoenix, Suwon, Waxahatchi, etc… and my memories of the places that I have lived and the people I have met will always be special to me. However, I can’t get pressured into joining every online networking site that pops up. Social media (and computers in general) should only take up a limited amount of hours in a day. It has to be contained. If you let it, a computer can take over your entire life.
In fact, I think that is the biggest lesson to all of this: If you let it, a computer can take over your entire life.
This means that each of us has to make our own personal compromise with technology in terms of how much we want to use it. It’s a very individual choice. I have a friend who loves video games because she enjoys the novelty of interactive stories (as opposed to TV and books where you have no control over the outcome.) I respect her love of video games and I don’t judge it. However, I am too obsessive with games (I’ll choose playing over eating and sleeping.) So, it turns out that they’re not for me. The same goes for Pinterest and DIY craft projects, living based on the opinion of Twitter, and a host of other things that other people enjoy.
I don’t make judgement about how others use technology. It’s up to you if you want to care about what’s hot on Instagram or what is streaming on Netflix right now. Some people invite a digital pretense into their home as well, in the form of AI like Cortana or Alexa. If you are comfortable with that, then I won’t judge you for it.
My personal compromise with technology is this:
I update my Facebook a couple times a year because the bulk of my friends still check Facebook. I keep a YouTube Channel of things I see in the ocean. And, I update my personal website in order to maintain control of my digital footprint and protect “my brand” online. Beyond that, I try to just create moments with people I care about in the most authentic ways that I can, so that I can maintain relationships over distance.
Example: I have Skype dates with my adopted family in Oregon because they like to see my face. I send flowers and chocolates to my grandmother in her nursing home, because she likes to show off that she gets flowers, and because she misses chocolate (she’s not supposed to have it because of her diet.) I invite friends who travel into my home, and try to bond with them over cooking meals and watching sunsets when they visit. And, I try to plan my vacations around being able to visit with at least one or two people I care about.
This story started because of Coleen, so let’s frame the point I am making around her for a second. The last time I saw Coleen I was on a trip back to Korea to visit people, and Rich got hit by a car in Seoul. He was in the hospital, and I took a break from haunting his bedside to get on a train to Busan and have dinner with Coleen. I brought her a towel from Guam, because American towels are in short supply in Asia and I knew she would get a lot of use out of it. We sat on Haeundae beach and looked out at the waves, and just shared stuff about our lives since we’d last met (which was several years before when we taught together at Avalon.) She’d lived in China and Iceland since then. I had lived in Oregon and Guam since then. And so, we caught each other up on our adventures.
That moment was not easy to create. I had to leave my husband in the hospital alone, buy an expensive train ticket, spend the day travelling, and bring a gift. However, it was worth every bit of effort and money. That is the real moral of the story of keeping in touch. True connection that is meaningful is often quite hard. It requires time, effort, and money.
Unless you live your entire life in one place, keeping in touch is always going to be a challenge. Technology can help you do it, but it can only do so much. Genuine connections are rare, and they don’t happen without putting in work. I am just saying that you should put in the effort to create moments with people, because it has a big impact on you and on them.
That said, I acknowledge that it is real work to update social media, as well. My friend Helena is a social media manager, and her entire job is updating social media for companies. I definitely don’t think anyone should shrug off or abstain from social media just because I have decided to put in a controlled and rationed amount of effort. That’s just my personal choice because I have a limited amount of time on Earth, and I like to spent it out and about. I don’t want to minimize the importance of online interaction because it can be really helpful. I met almost all of my friends through the Internet via various groups that led to meetups. I even met my husband online.
I just think there should be a balance between in-person interaction and online interaction, because one without the other is less meaningful.
I also believe that in-person interaction can be augmented with objects if distance is an issue. I mean, I spent the last four years living in one of the most isolated places on Earth (the Marianas islands -of which Guam is a part- are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean pretty far from anything.) In spite of this, I managed to maintain good relationships with people.
My secret weapon is The Holiday Card. I came of age at the same time that the Internet was coming of age. I am supposed to be a “Xennial,” (the micro-generation between Generation X and the Millennial Generation.) I am told that this means I think everything should be augmented with technology, but I disagree. I think there is a little bit of pre-tech mentality in all Xennials.
A card is something you can touch and hold. It is tangible, and it can sit on a shelf and remind people that you love them even when you are far away. I create a whole experience with a holiday letter, a recent photo, and a card with a personal message inside and maybe a little drawing of a coconut tree with Christmas lights or something.
On trips back to the mainland, I have seen shoeboxes labeled “Jen,” and filled with my holidays cards and post cards. This is why little scraps of paper sent across the world matter. They are special to people. People save them and treasure them. And when you can’t be with people, it makes them connect with you from half a world away.
The next step in technology will hopefully be virtual reality goggles and upgraded chat rooms. I’ll put on my headset in Guam and walk into a room that only exists online, and there will be my friend rendered in 3D, sitting at a table. I’ll sit down next to them, and we’ll lift our glasses and toast (hopefully complete with glass clinking sound effects,) and we’ll catch up as if we were together. It’s won’t be easy with time zones, as Skype has already taught me. But, we’ll make it work once every six months or so.
Until then, I guess I will just keep maintaining my digital footprint, updating my Facebook, keeping a YouTube Channel, and sending little scraps of paper covered in love to people around the world. We’ll all just keep working on negotiating our personal relationships with technology while trying to maintain relationships with humans, and hopefully, we’ll keep making it work.
For those who are struggling to find connection, please never hesitate to call me, Skype me, text me, e-mail me, or connect in whatever way you find most comfortable. I don’t want anyone I care about to ever feel alone or alienated by the world. Connection makes people happy. We thrive on being loved and feeling like we are part of a group. There is so much to balance these days with work, social media, recreation, family, and romance. A human can wind up feelings totally overwhelmed by obligations and still not connected. However, I will always do what I can to reach out and make a personal connection with someone in need.
Example: on Valentine’s day, someone I know in the mainland US was feelings really alone. I spent some time chatting and tried to figure out what would most help. Two days later an envelope arrived on their doorstep with a flash drive full of data customized to cheer them up. It was like a hug from 7,000 miles away. I am quite proud of that because this is a person who had sort of a hard time in Afghanistan. They have sometimes leaned on me for a feeling of connection in the past, and I am honored that I could help.
Humans need to look out for other humans. We are a society, and we are all responsible for each other. If we let people fall (into addiction, crime, or suicide) then we are all failing as a species. Every mind has a unique beauty, and a distinct and special perspective. So computers or not: take time to connect with other humans through some medium.
Keeping in touch is so important, and it will never go out of style.
Note: The photos in this post are all of cards that friends have sent me.