No need to call - Networked - Alone Together - Sherry Turkle

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other - Sherry Turkle (2011)

Part II. Networked

Chapter 10. No need to call

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“So many people hate the telephone,” says Elaine, seventeen. Among her friends at Roosevelt High School, “it’s all texting and messaging.” She herself writes each of her six closest friends roughly twenty texts a day. In addition, she says, “there are about forty instant messages out, forty in, when I’m at home on the computer.” Elaine has strong ideas about how electronic media “levels the playing field” between people like her—outgoing, on the soccer team, and in drama club—and the shy: “It’s only on the screen that shy people open up.” She explains why: “When you can think about what you’re going to say, you can talk to someone you’d have trouble talking to. And it doesn’t seem weird that you pause for two minutes to think about what you’re going to say before you say it, like it would be if you were actually talking to someone.”

Elaine gets specific about the technical designs that help shy people express themselves in electronic messaging. The person to whom you are writing shouldn’t be able to see your process of revision or how long you have been working on the message. “That could be humiliating.” The best communication programs shield the writer from the view of the reader. The advantage of screen communication is that it is a place to reflect, retype, and edit. “It is a place to hide,” says Elaine.

The notion that hiding makes it easier to open up is not new. In the psychoanalytic tradition, it inspired technique. Classical analysis shielded the patient from the analyst’s gaze in order to facilitate free association, the golden rule of saying whatever comes to mind. Likewise, at a screen, you feel protected and less burdened by expectations. And, although you are alone, the potential for almost instantaneous contact gives an encouraging feeling of already being together. In this curious relational space, even sophisticated users who know that electronic communications can be saved, shared, and show up in court, succumb to its illusion of privacy. Alone with your thoughts, yet in contact with an almost tangible fantasy of the other, you feel free to play. At the screen, you have a chance to write yourself into the person you want to be and to imagine others as you wish to them to be, constructing them for your purposes.1 It is a seductive but dangerous habit of mind. When you cultivate this sensibility, a telephone call can seem fearsome because it reveals too much.

Elaine is right in her analysis: teenagers flee the telephone. Perhaps more surprisingly, so do adults. They claim exhaustion and lack of time; always on call, with their time highly leveraged through multitasking, they avoid voice communication outside of a small circle because it demands their full attention when they don’t want to give it.

Technologies live in complex ecologies. The meaning of any one depends on what others are available. The telephone was once a way to touch base or ask a simple question. But once you have access to e-mail, instant messaging, and texting, things change. Although we still use the phone to keep up with those closest to us, we use it less outside this circle.2 Not only do people say that a phone call asks too much, they worry it will be received as demanding too much. Randolph, a forty-six-year-old architect with two jobs, two young children, and a twelve-year-old son from a former marriage, makes both points. He avoids the telephone because he feels “tapped out.... It promises more than I’m willing to deliver.” If he keeps his communications to text and e-mail, he believes he can “keep it together.” He explains, “Now that there is e-mail, people expect that a call will be more complicated. Not about facts. A fuller thing. People expect it to take time—or else you wouldn’t have called.”

Tara, a fifty-five-year-old lawyer who juggles children, a job, and a new marriage, makes a similar point: “When you ask for a call, the expectation is that you have pumped it up a level. People say to themselves: ‘It’s urgent or she would have sent an e-mail.’” So Tara avoids the telephone. She wants to meet with friends in person; e-mail is for setting up these meetings. “That is what is most efficient,” she says. But efficiency has its downside. Business meetings have agendas, but friends have unscheduled needs. In friendship, things can’t always wait. Tara knows this; she feels guilty and she experiences a loss: “I’m at the point where I’m processing my friends as though they were items of inventory … or clients.”

Leonora, fifty-seven, a professor of chemistry, reflects on her similar practice: “I use e-mail to make appointments to see friends, but I’m so busy that I’m often making an appointment one or two months in the future. After we set things up by e-mail, we do not call. Really. I don’t call. They don’t call. They feel that they have their appointment. What do I feel? I feel I have ‘taken care of that person.’” Leonora’s pained tone makes it clear that by “taken care of” she means that she has crossed someone off a to-do list. Tara and Leonora are discontent but do not feel they have a choice. This is where technology has brought them. They subscribe to a new etiquette, claiming the need for efficiency in a realm where efficiency is costly.


We met Audrey, sixteen, a Roosevelt junior who talked about her Facebook profile as “the avatar of me.” She is one of Elaine’s shy friends who prefers texting to talking. She is never without her phone, sometimes using it to text even as she instant-messages at an open computer screen. Audrey feels lonely in her family. She has an older brother in medical school and a second, younger brother, just two years old. Her parents are divorced, and she lives half time with each of them. Their homes are about a forty-five-minute drive apart. This means that Audrey spends a lot of time on the road. “On the road,” she says. “That’s daily life.” She sees her phone as the glue that ties her life together. Her mother calls her to pass on a message to her father. Her father does the same. Audrey says, “They call me to say, ‘Tell your mom this.... Make sure your dad knows that.’ I use the cell to pull it together.” Audrey sums up the situation: “My parents use me and my cell like instant messenger. I am their IM.”

Like so many other children who tell me similar stories, Audrey complains of her mother’s inattention when she picks her up at school or after sports practice. At these times, Audrey says, her mother is usually focused on her cell phone, either texting or talking to her friends. Audrey describes the scene: she comes out of the gym exhausted, carrying heavy gear. Her mother sits in her beaten-up SUV, immersed in her cell, and doesn’t even look up until Audrey opens the car door. Sometimes her mother will make eye contact but remain engrossed with the phone as they begin the drive home. Audrey says, “It gets between us, but it’s hopeless. She’s not going to give it up. Like, it could have been four days since I last spoke to her, then I sit in the car and wait in silence until she’s done.”3

Audrey has a fantasy of her mother, waiting for her, expectant, without a phone. But Audrey is resigned that this is not to be and feels she must temper her criticism of her mother because of her own habit of texting when she is with her friends. Audrey does everything she can to avoid a call.4 “The phone, it’s awkward. I don’t see the point. Too much just a recap and sharing feelings. With a text … I can answer on my own time. I can respond. I can ignore it. So it really works with my mood. I’m not bound to anything, no commitment.... I have control over the conversation and also more control over what I say.”

Texting offers protection:

Nothing will get spat at you. You have time to think and prepare what you’re going to say, to make you appear like that’s just the way you are. There’s planning involved, so you can control how you’re portrayed to this person, because you’re choosing these words, editing it before you send it.... When you instant-message you can cross things out, edit what you say, block a person, or sign off. A phone conversation is a lot of pressure. You’re always expected to uphold it, to keep it going, and that’s too much pressure.... You have to just keep going … “Oh, how was your day?” You’re trying to think of something else to say real fast so the conversation doesn’t die out.

Then Audrey makes up a new word. A text, she argues, is better than a call because in a call “there is a lot less boundness to the person.” By this she means that in a call, she could learn too much or say too much, and things could get “out of control.” A call has insufficient boundaries. She admits that “later in life I’m going to need to talk to people on the phone. But not now.” When texting, she feels at a reassuring distance. If things start to go in a direction she doesn’t like, she can easily redirect the conversation—or cut it off: “In texting, you get your main points off; you can really control when you want the conversation to start and end. You say, ‘Got to go, bye.’ You just do it ... much better than the long drawn-out good-byes, when you have no real reason to leave, but you want to end the conversation.” This last is what Audrey likes least—the end of conversations. A phone call, she explains, requires the skill to end a conversation “when you have no real reason to leave.... It’s not like there is a reason. You just want to. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t want to learn.”

Ending a call is hard for Audrey because she experiences separation as rejection; she projects onto others the pang of abandonment she feels when someone ends a conversation with her. Feeling unthreatened when someone wants to end a conversation may seem a small thing, but it is not. It calls upon a sense of self-worth; one needs to be at a place where Audrey has not arrived. It is easier to avoid the phone; its beginnings and endings are too rough on her.

Audrey is not alone in this. Among her friends, phone calls are infrequent, and she says, “Face-to-face conversations happen way less than they did before. It’s always, ‘Oh, talk to you online.’” This means, she explains, that things happen online that “should happen in person … Friendships get broken. I’ve had someone ask me out in a text message. I’ve had someone break up with me online.” But Audrey is resigned to such costs and focuses on the bounties of online life.

One of Audrey’s current enthusiasms is playing a more social, even flirtatious version of herself in online worlds. “I’d like to be more like I am online,” she says. As we’ve seen, for Audrey, building an online avatar is not so different from writing a social-networking profile. An avatar, she explains, “is a Facebook profile come to life.” And avatars and profiles have a lot in common with the everyday experiences of texting and instant messaging. In all of these, as she sees it, the point is to do “a performance of you.”

Making an avatar and texting. Pretty much the same. You’re creating your own person; you don’t have to think of things on the spot really, which a lot of people can’t really do. You’re creating your own little ideal person and sending it out. Also on the Internet, with sites like MySpace and Facebook, you put up the things you like about yourself, and you’re not going to advertise the bad aspects of you.

You’re not going to post pictures of how you look every day. You’re going to get your makeup on, put on your cute little outfit, you’re going to take your picture and post it up as your default, and that’s what people are going to expect that you are every day, when really you’re making it up for all these people.... You can write anything about yourself; these people don’t know. You can create who you want to be. You can say what kind of stereotype mold you want to fit in without ... maybe in real life it won’t work for you, you can’t pull it off. But you can pull it off on the Internet.

Audrey has her cell phone and its camera with her all day; all day she takes pictures and posts them to Facebook. She boasts that she has far more Facebook photo albums than any of her friends. “I like to feel,” she says, “that my life is up there.” But, of course, what is up on Facebook is her edited life. Audrey is preoccupied about which photographs to post. Which put her in the best light? Which show her as a “bad” girl in potentially appealing ways? If identity play is the work of adolescence, Audrey is at work all day: “If Facebook were deleted, I’d be deleted.... All my memories would probably go along with it. And other people have posted pictures of me. All of that would be lost. If Facebook were undone, I might actually freak out.... That is where I am. It’s part of your life. It’s a second you.” It is at this point that Audrey says of a Facebook avatar: “It’s your little twin on the Internet.”

Since Audrey is constantly reshaping this “twin,” she wonders what happens to the elements of her twin that she edits away. “What does Facebook do with pictures you put on and then take off?” She suspects that they stay on the Internet forever, an idea she finds both troubling and comforting. If everything is archived, Audrey worries that she will never be able to escape the Internet twin. That thought is not so nice. But if everything is archived, at least in fantasy, she will never have to give her up. That thought is kind of nice.

On Facebook, Audrey works on the twin, and the twin works on her. She describes her relationship to the site as a “give-and-take.” Here’s how it works: Audrey tries out a “flirty” style. She receives a good response from Facebook friends, and so she ramps up the flirtatious tone. She tries out “an ironic, witty” tone in her wall posts. The response is not so good, and she retreats. Audrey uses the same kind of tinkering as she experiments with her avatars in virtual worlds. She builds a first version to “put something out there.” Then comes months of adjusting, of “seeing the new kinds of people I can hang with” by changing how she represents herself. Change your avatar, change your world.

Audrey says that her online avatars boost her real-life confidence. Like many other young women on Second Life, Audrey makes her avatar more conventionally attractive than she is in the real. Audrey is a pretty girl, with long red hair, styled in a single braid down her back. Her braid and her preference for floral prints give her an old-fashioned look. On Second Life, Audrey’s hair is modern and blunt cut, her body more developed, her makeup heavier, her clothes more suggestive. There are no floral prints. A promotional video for the game asserts that this is a place to “connect, shop, work, love, explore, be different, free yourself, free your mind, change your looks, love your looks, love your life.”5 But is loving your life as an avatar the same as loving your life in the real? For Audrey, as for many of her peers, the answer is unequivocally yes. Online life is practice to make the rest of life better, but it is also a pleasure in itself. Teenagers spend hours depleting allowances, shopping for clothes and shoes for their online selves. These virtual goods have real utility; they are required for avatars with full social lives.

Despite her enthusiasm for Second Life, Audrey’s most emotional online experience has taken place on MySpace—or more precisely, on Italian MySpace. During her sophomore year at Roosevelt, Audrey met a group of Italian exchange students. They introduced her to the site. At that point, Audrey had taken one year of high school Italian, just enough to build a profile with some help from her friends. She admits that this profile bears only a glancing relationship to the truth. On Italian MySpace, Audrey is older and more experienced. When her profile went up, a lot of men sent her messages in Italian. She found this thrilling and responded enthusiastically. The game was on. Now, a year later, it continues: “I message back in the little Italian that I know. I don’t usually respond to those things, but since I figure my real information isn’t on there, and they’re in Italy and I’m in America, why not? It’s fun to step outside yourself. You can’t really do this with your friends in real life.” For Audrey, Italian MySpace is like chat rooms: “You do it with people you’re never going to speak to or assume you’re never going to speak to.”

Audrey’s focus on “people you’re never going to speak to” brings to mind once again how Erik Erikson thought about the moratorium necessary for adolescent development. Writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, he could think of the American “high school years” as offering this relatively consequence-free environment. 6 These days, high school is presented to its students and their parents as anything but consequence free. Audrey is in a highly competitive college preparatory program—the fast track in her high school—and is continually reminded of the consequences of every grade, every SAT score, every extracurricular choice. She thinks of her high school experience as time in a professional school where she trains to get into college. Real life provides little space for consequence-free identity play, but Italian MySpace provides a great deal.

Long after the Italian exchange students are gone, Audrey keeps her page on Italian MySpace. As she talks about its pleasures, I think of my first trip to Europe in the summer after my sophomore year in college. In its spirit, my behavior in the real was not so different from Audrey’s in the virtual. I hitchhiked from Paris to Rome, against my parents’ clear instructions. I left everything about my identity behind except for being a nineteen-year-old American. I saw no reason for anyone to know me as a serious, academically disciplined student. I preferred to simply be nineteen. I never lied, but I never told any of the young Romans I hung around with that I wasn’t simply a lighthearted coed. Indeed, during that summer of not quite being me, it was not so clear that I was not a lighthearted coed. My Roman holiday only worked if I didn’t bring my new Italian friends into the rest of my life. Audrey, too, needs to compartmentalize. On Italian MySpace she cultivates friendships that she keeps separate from her “real” American Facebook account.

When I tell Audrey about my month in Rome, she gives me the smile of a coconspirator. She offers that she has done “that kind of thing as well.” The previous summer she went on a school trip to Puerto Rico. “I wore kinds of shorts and tops that I would never wear at home. There, my reputation isn’t on the line; there’s no one I care about judging me or anything, so why not?” Audrey and I talk about the difference between our transgressive real-world travels—mine to Italy, hers to Puerto Rico—and what she can do online. Once our respective trips were over, we were back at home with our vigilant families and everyday identities. But Audrey can go online and dress her avatars in sexy outfits whenever she wants. Her racier self is always a few clicks away on Italian MySpace. She can keep her parallel lives open as windows on her screen.


Every day Audrey expresses herself through a group of virtual personae. There are Facebook and Italian MySpace profiles; there are avatars in virtual worlds, some chat rooms, and a handful of online games. Identity involves negotiating all of these and the physical Audrey. When identity is multiple in this way, people feel “whole” not because they are one but because the relationships among aspects of self are fluid and undefensive. We feel “ourselves” if we can move easily among our many aspects of self.7

I once worried that teenagers would experience this virtual nomadism as exhausting or confusing. But my concerns didn’t take into account that in online life, the site supports the self. Each site remembers the choices you’ve have made there, what you’ve said about yourself, and the history of your relationships. Audrey says it can be hard to decide where to go online, because where she goes means stepping into who she is in any given place, and in different places, she has different pastimes and different friends. What Pete called the “life mix” refers to more than combining a virtual life with a physically embodied one. Even for sixteen-year-old Audrey, many virtual lives are in play.

Not surprisingly, there are moments when life in the life mix gets tense. Audrey tells a story about a boy from school who was online with her and several of her girlfriends in the game World of Warcraft. They were all present as avatars, but each knew the real-life identity of the other players in their group. The online setting emboldened the normally shy young man, who, Audrey says, “became aggressive. He started talking tough.” Audrey says that online, she and her friends began to laugh at him, to tease him a bit, “because knowing who he is in person, we were like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” But the girls were also upset. They had never seen their friend behave like this. The next day, when they saw him at school, he just walked away. He could not own what had happened online. Shame about his virtual self changed his life in the real. Audrey calls this kind of thing the “spillover effect.” It happens frequently, she says, but “it is not a good thing.”

Audrey has developed a strategy to avoid such spillovers. If she is online in any setting where she knows the real identity of those with her, she treats what happens there as if it were shared under attorney-client privilege. Put otherwise, she takes an online space such as Facebook, where her identity is “known,” and reconstructs it as a place that will be more useful as a context for the much-needed moratorium. For Audrey, what happens on the Internet should stay on the Internet, at least most of the time. Audrey compares the Internet to Alcoholics Anonymous:

If you went to an AA group and you said, “I’m an alcoholic,” and your friend was there ... you don’t talk about it outside of there even if you two are in the same group. It’s that kind of understanding. So, on Facebook, I’m not anonymous. But not many people will bring up Internet stuff in real life.

Unless there’s a scandal, no one will call you on what you write on Facebook. It’s kind of a general consensus that you created your profile for a reason. No one’s going to question why you choose to put this or that in your “About Me” [a section of the Facebook profile]. People are just going to leave that alone. Especially if they actually know who you are, they don’t really care what you write on the Internet.

Audrey’s friends see her bend reality on Facebook but are willing to take her online self on its own terms. She offers them the same courtesy. The result is more leeway to experiment with emotions and ideas in digital life. Audrey says, “Even on AIM [the free instant messaging service offered by America Online], I could have long conversations with someone and the next day [in person] just be like, ‘Hey.’” You split the real and virtual to give the virtual the breathing space it needs.

Sometimes, says Audrey, “people take what they show online and try to bring it back to the rest of their lives,” but this to sorry effect. As an example, Audrey describes her “worst Internet fight.” It began in a chat room where she quarreled with Logan, a classmate. Feeling that she had been in the wrong, the next day Audrey told Logan she was sorry, face-to-face. This real-world apology did not quiet things down. Instead, Logan brought the quarrel back into the online world. He posted his side of the story to Audrey’s Facebook wall. Now, all of her friends could read about it. Audrey felt compelled to retaliate in kind. Now, his Facebook wall related her angry version of things. At school, Audrey and Logan shared many friends, who felt they had to take sides. Day after day, hours were spent in angry exchanges, with an expanding group of players.

What strikes Audrey most about this Internet fight is that, in the end, it had been “about close to nothing.” She explains, “I said something I shouldn’t have. I apologized. If it had happened at a party, it would have ended in five minutes.” But she had said it on the Internet, its own peculiar echo chamber. For Audrey, the hurt from this incident, six months in the past, is still raw: “We were really good friends, and now we don’t even look at each other in the hall.”

Audrey is comforted by the belief that she had done her best. Even though she had broken her rule about keeping the virtual and real separate, she insists that trying to make things “right” in person had given her friendship with Logan its best chance: “An online apology. It’s cheap. It’s easy. All you have to do is type ‘I’m sorry.’ You don’t have to have any emotion, any believability in your voice or anything. It takes a lot for someone to go up to a person and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and that’s when you can really take it to heart. If someone’s going to take the easy way out and rely on text to portray all these forgiving emotions, it’s not going to work.” Eventually Logan did apologize, but only online. Accordingly, the apology failed: “It might have been different if he said it in person, but he didn’t. With an online apology, there are still unanswered questions: ‘Is he going to act weird to me now? Are we just going to be normal?’ You don’t know how the two worlds are going to cross.” An online apology is only one of the easy “shortcuts” that the Net provides. It is a world of many such temptations.

Audrey says that she took her worst shortcut a year before when she broke up with a boyfriend online. Teenage girls often refer to television’s Sex and the City to make a point about when not to text. In a much-discussed episode, the heroine’s boyfriend breaks up with her by leaving a Post-it note. You shouldn’t break up by Post-it note and you shouldn’t break up by text. Audrey says she knew this rule; her break up on instant messenger had been a lapse. She still has not entirely forgiven herself:

I was afraid. I couldn’t do it on the phone, and I couldn’t do it in person. It was the kind of thing where I knew it had to end because I didn’t feel the same way, one of those things. I felt so bad, because I really did care for him, and I couldn’t get myself to say it. It was one of those.... I wasn’t trying to chicken out, I just couldn’t form the words, so I had to do it online, and I wish I hadn’t. He deserved to have me do it in person.... I’m very sorry for it. I just think it’s a really cold move, and kind of lame.

Audrey was still so upset by the online breakup that in our conversation, she comes to her own defense. She tells me about a time when she behaved better: “I was in an argument with a friend and I began to write a Facebook message about it but I stopped myself.” She explains that breaking up with a boyfriend online is very bad, but “well, at least you can just cut ties. With a friend you actually have to work it out. It’s not as easy as ‘I don’t want to be friends with you anymore.’” And now that friendships span the physical and virtual, you have to “work it out” across worlds.

Audrey’s etiquette for how to work things out across worlds is complicated. She finds face-to-face conversation difficult and avoids the telephone at all cost. Yet, as we’ve seen, she also thinks there are things that should only be done face-to-face, like breaking up with a boy and the “whole heartfelt baring of souls.” When her parents separated, she had to move and change school districts. She was disappointed when one of her friends at her former school sent her an instant message to tell her she would be missed. Audrey’s comment: “It was really sweet, but I just wished that—it would have meant so much more if we could’ve done that face-to-face. And I understood. We don’t see each other every day, and if you feel it right now, on the Internet, you can tell them right now; you don’t have to wait or anything. I really appreciated it, but it was different reading it than hearing it in her voice.”

As Audrey tells me this story, she becomes aware that she is suggesting a confusing set of rules. She tries to impose some order: “I try to avoid the telephone, I like texting and instant messaging, and I am so often on Facebook that I probably give the impression that I want everything to happen online.” But some things, such as a friend’s good-bye to a friend, she wants to have happen in person. Like Tara and Leona, Audrey makes no suggestion that “talking” on a telephone could ever be of much help. Telephones are for logistical arrangements, if complicated (often overlapping) text messages have confused a situation.

When Audrey considers whether her school friend said good-bye in a text because she didn’t care or wasn’t “brave enough to say something nice face-to-face,” Audrey admits that the latter is more likely and that she can identify with this.8 If you send fond feelings or appreciation digitally, you protect yourself from a cool reception. One of the emotional affordances of digital communication is that one can always hide behind deliberated nonchalance.


“Whassup?” Reynold, a sixteen-year-old at Silver Academy, a small urban Catholic high school in Pennsylvania, savors the phrase. “With instant messaging, ‘Whassup?’ is all you need to say.” Reynold makes it clear that IM does not require “content.” You just need to be there; your presence says you are open to chat. A text message is more demanding: “You need more of a purpose. Texting is for ‘Where are you, where am I, let’s do this, let’s do that.’” Among friends, however, “texting can be just as random as IM.” Reynold likes this: “Among close friends, you can text to just say ‘Whassup?’”

I discuss online communications with eight junior and senior boys at Silver who eagerly take up Reynold’s question: When should one use texting, IM, Facebook wall posts, or Facebook and MySpace messaging? (Messaging on social networks is the closest these students get to e-mailing except to deal with teachers and college and job applications.) One senior is critical of those who don’t know the rules: “Some people try to have conversations on texts, and I don’t like that.” In this group, there is near consensus that one of the pleasures of digital communication is that it does not need a message. It can be there to trigger a feeling rather than transmit a thought. Indeed, for many teenagers who discover their feelings by texting them, communication is the place where feelings are born.

Not far into this conversation, the emphasis on nonchalance runs into the complication that Audrey signaled: the composition of any message (even the most seemingly casual) is often studied. And never more so than when dealing with members of the opposite sex. John, sixteen, is an insecure young man with a crush who turns to a Cyrano, digital style. When he wants to get in touch with a girl he really likes, John hands his phone over to a friend he knows to be skilled at flirting by text. In fact, he has several stand-ins. When one of these friends does his texting, John is confident that he sounds good to his Roxanne. In matters of the heart, the quality of one’s texts is as crucial as the choice of communications medium.

High school students have a lot to say about what kinds of messages “fit” with what kinds of media. This, one might say, is their generational expertise. Having grown up with new media that had no rules, they wrote some out of necessity. At Richelieu, Vera, a sophomore, says that texting brings “social pressure” because when she texts someone and the person does not get back to her, she takes it hard. With instant messaging, she feels less pressure because “if somebody doesn’t get back to you, well, you can just assume they stepped away from their computer.” Her classmate Mandy disagrees: “When I am ignored on IM, I get very upset.” Two other classmates join the conversation. One tells Mandy that her reaction is “silly” and betrays a misunderstanding of “how the system works.” A gentler girl tries to reason Mandy out of her hurt feelings: “Everyone knows that on IM, it is assumed you are busy, talking with other people, doing your homework, you don’t have to answer.” Mandy is not appeased: “I don’t care. When I send a message out, it is hurtful if I don’t get anything back.”

Mandy presses her point. For her, the hurt of no response follows from what she calls the “formality” of instant messenging. In her circle, instant messages are sent in the evening, when one is working on homework on a laptop or desktop. This presumed social and technical setting compels a certain gravitas. Mandy’s case rests on an argument in the spirit of Marshall McLuhan. The medium is the message: if you are at your computer, the medium is formal, and so is the message. If you are running around, shopping, or having a coffee, and you swipe a few keys on your phone to send a text, the medium is informal, and so is the message, no matter how much you may have edited the content.

The defenders of the “nonchalance” of instant messaging stand their ground: when you send an IM, it is going to a person “who has maybe ten things going on.” Even though sitting at a computer, the recipient could well be doing homework, playing games on Facebook, or watching a movie. In all of this noise, your instant message can easily get lost. And sometimes, people stay signed on to instant messenger even though they have left the computer. All of this means, Vera sums up, “that IM can be a lower risk way to test the waters, especially with a boy, than sending a text. You can just send out something without the clear expectation that you will get something back.” Though designed for conversation, IM is also perfect for the noncommittal, for “Whassup.”

All the Richelieu sophomores agree that the thing to avoid is the telephone. Mandy presents a downbeat account of a telephone call: “You wouldn’t want to call because then you would have to get into a conversation.” And conversation, “Well, that’s something where you only want to have them when you want to have them.” For Mandy, this would be “almost never.... It is almost always too prying, it takes too long, and it is impossible to say ‘good-bye.’” She shares Audrey’s problem. Awkward good-byes feel too much like rejection. With texting, she says, “you just ask a question and then it’s over.”

This distaste for the phone crosses genders. A sixteen-year-old boy at Fillmore will not speak on the telephone except when his mother makes him call a relative. “When you text, you have more time to think about what you’re writing. When you talk on the phone, you don’t really think about what you’re saying as much as in a text. On the telephone, too much might show.” He prefers a deliberate performance that can be made to seem spontaneous. This offhand, seeming-not-to-care style has always been an emotional staple of adolescence, but now it is facilitated by digital communication: you send out a feeler; you look like you don’t much care; things happen.

A text message might give the impression of spontaneity to its recipient, but teenagers admit they might spend ten minutes editing its opening line to get it just right. Spencer, a senior at Fillmore, says, “You forget the time you put into it when you get a text message back. You never think that anyone else put thought into theirs. So you sort of forget that you put time into yours.” I ask him if he ever has sent a hastily composed text, and he assures me that this sometimes happens. “But not the ones that really count.... Before I send an important one, I switch it around, a lot.” Deval, one of his classmates, says he is a very fast “thumb typist” and refers to his text messages as “conversations.” One day we meet at noon. By that time, he says, he has “already sent out perhaps a hundred texts,” most of them in two conversational threads. One conversation, Deval explains, “was with my buddy about his game last night. I wasn’t able to go. Another was with my cousin who lives in Montreal, and she was asking about this summer and stuff. I’m going to be going to Canada for college. Since I’m going to be near them next year, she was asking whether I was going to come visit this summer.”

I ask Deval how this conversation by text differs from placing a call to his Montreal cousin. He has spent the better part of the morning texting back and forth to her. Avoiding the phone cannot be about efficient time management. His answer is immediate: “She has an annoying voice.” And besides, he says, “Texting is more direct. You don’t have to use conversation filler.” Their interaction on text “was just information.” Deval says, “She was asking me direct questions; I was giving her direct answers. A long phone conversation with somebody you don’t want to talk to that badly can be a waste of time.”

Texting makes it possible for Deval to have a “conversation” in which he does not have to hear the sound of a voice he finds irritating. He has a way to make plans to live with his cousin during the summer without sharing any pleasantries or showing any interest in her. Both parties are willing to reduce their interchange to a transaction that scheduling software could perform. The software would certainly be comfortable with “no conversation filler” and “just information.”

And yet, Deval does not know if texting is for life. He says that he might, not now, but sometime soon, “force himself” to talk on the phone. “It might be a way to teach yourself to have a conversation … For later in life, I’ll need to learn how to have a conversation, learn how to find common ground so I can have something to talk about, rather than spending my life in awkward silence. I feel like phone conversations nowadays will help me in the long run because I’ll be able to have a conversation.” These days, of course, even those who are “later in life” have come to avoid telephone conversations. If you feel that you’re always on call, you start to hide from the rigors of things that unfold in real time.


The teenagers I studied were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many were introduced to the Internet through America Online when they were only a little past being toddlers. Their parents, however, came to online life as grown-ups. In this domain, they are a generation that, from the beginning, has been playing catch-up with their children. This pattern continues: the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook is adults from thirty-five to forty-four.9Conventional wisdom stresses how different these adults are from their children—laying out fundamental divides between those who migrated to digital worlds and those who are its “natives.” But the migrants and natives share a lot: perhaps above all, the feeling of being overwhelmed. If teenagers, overwhelmed with demands for academic and sexual performance, have come to treat online life as a place to hide and draw some lines, then their parents, claiming exhaustion, strive to exert greater control over what reaches them. And the only way to filter effectively is to keep most communications online and text based.

So, they are always on, always at work, and always on call. I remember the time, not many years ago, when I celebrated Thanksgiving with a friend and her son, a young lawyer, who had just been given a beeper by his firm. At the time, everyone at the table, including him, joked about the idea of his “legal emergencies.” By the following year, he couldn’t imagine not being in continual contact with the office. There was a time when only physicians had beepers, a “burden” shared in rotation. Now, we have all taken up the burden, reframed as an asset—or as just the way it is.

We are on call for our families as well as our colleagues. On a morning hike in the Berkshires, I fall into step with Hope, forty-seven, a real estate broker from Manhattan. She carries her BlackBerry. Her husband, she says, will probably want to be in touch. And indeed, he calls at thirty-minute intervals. Hope admits, somewhat apologetically, that she is “not fond” of the calls, but she loves her husband, and this is what he needs. She answers her phone religiously until finally a call comes in with spotty reception. “We’re out of range, thank goodness,” she says, as she disables her phone. “I need a rest.”

Increasingly, people feel as though they must have a reason for taking time alone, a reason not to be available for calls. It is poignant that people’s thoughts turn to technology when they imagine ways to deal with stresses that they see as having been brought on by technology. They talk of filters and intelligent agents that will handle the messages they don’t want to see. Hope and Audrey, though thirty years apart in age, both see texting as the solution to the “problem” of the telephone. And both redefine “stress” in the same way—as pressure that happens in real time. With this in mind, my hiking partner explains that she is trying to “convert” her husband to texting. There will be more messages; he will be able to send more texts than he can place calls. But she will not have to deal with them “as they happen.”

Mixed feelings about the drumbeat of electronic communication do not suggest any lack of affection toward those with whom we are in touch. But a stream of messages makes it impossible to find moments of solitude, time when other people are showing us neither dependency nor affection. In solitude we don’t reject the world but have the space to think our own thoughts. But if your phone is always with you, seeking solitude can look suspiciously like hiding.

We fill our days with ongoing connection, denying ourselves time to think and dream. Busy to the point of depletion, we make a new Faustian bargain. It goes something like this: if we are left alone when we make contact, we can handle being together.

A thirty-six-year-old nurse at a large Boston hospital begins her day with a visit to her mother. Then she shops for food, cleans the house, and gets ready for work. After an eight-hour shift and dinner, it is after 9 p.m. “I am in no state to socialize,” she says. “I don’t even have the energy to try to track people down by phone. My friends from nursing school are all over the country. I send some e-mails. I log onto Facebook and feel less alone. Even when people are not there, like, exactly when I’m there, it seems like they are there. I have their new pictures, the last thing they were doing. I feel caught up.” A widow of fifty-two grew up on volunteer work and people stopping by for afternoon tea. Now she works full-time as an office manager. Unaccustomed to her new routine, she says she is “somewhat surprised” to find that she has stopped calling friends. She is content to send e-mails and Facebook messages. She says, “A call feels like an intrusion, as though I would be intruding on my friends. But also, if they call me, I feel they are intruding... After work—I want to go home, look at some photos from the grandchildren on Facebook, send some e-mails and feel in touch. I’m tired. I’m not ready for people—I mean people in person.” Both women feel put upon by what used to be sustaining, a telephone call. Its design flaw: it can only happen in real time. The flight to e-mail begins as a “solution” to fatigue. It ends with people having a hard time summoning themselves for a telephone call, and certainly not for “people in person.”

Dan, a law professor in his mid-fifties, explains that he never “interrupts” his colleagues at work. He does not call; he does not ask to see them. He says, “They might be working, doing something. It might be a bad time.” I ask him if this behavior is new. He says, “Oh, yes, we used to hang out. It was nice.” He reconciles his view that once collegial behavior now constitutes interruption by saying, “People are busier now.” But then he pauses and corrects himself. “I’m not being completely honest here: it’s also that I don’t want to talk to people now. I don’t want to be interrupted. I think I should want to, it would be nice, but it is easier to deal with people on my BlackBerry.”10

This widespread attitude makes things hard for Hugh, twenty-five, who says that he “needs more than e-mails and Facebook can provide.” If his friends don’t have time to see him, he wants them to talk to him on the phone so that he can have “the full attention of the whole person.” But when he texts his friends to arrange a call, Hugh says that he has to make his intentions clear: he wants “private cell time.” He explains, “This is time when the person you are calling makes a commitment that they will not take calls from other people. They are not doing anything else.” He says he feels most rejected when, while speaking on the phone with a friend, he becomes aware that his friend is also texting or on Facebook, something that happens frequently. “I don’t even want them to be walking. I can’t have a serious conversation with someone while they are on their way from one sales meeting to another. Private cell time is the hardest thing to get. People don’t want to make the commitment.”

Some young people—aficionados of the text message and the call to “touch base”—echo Hugh’s sentiments about the difficulty of getting “full attention.” One sixteen-year-old boy says, “I say to people, talk to me. Now is my time.” Another tries to get his friends to call him from landlines because it means they are in one place as they speak to him, and the reception will be clear. He says, “The best is when you can get someone to call you back on a landline.... That is the best.” Talking on a landline with no interruptions used to be an everyday thing. Now it is exotic, the jewel in the crown.

Hugh says that recently, when he does get private cell time, he comes to regret it. By demanding that people be sitting down, with nothing to do but chat with him, he has raised the bar too high: “They’re disappointed if I’m, like, not talking about being depressed, about contemplating a divorce, about being fired.” Hugh laughs. “You ask for private cell time, you better come up with the goods.”

The barrier to making a call is so high that even when people have something important to share, they hold back. Tara, the lawyer who admits to “processing” her friends by dealing with them on e-mail, tells me a story about a friendship undermined. About four times a year, Tara has dinner with Alice, a classmate from law school. Recently, the two women exchanged multiple emails trying to set a date. Finally, after many false starts, they settled on a time and a restaurant. Alice did not come to the dinner with good news. Her sister had died. Though they lived thousands of miles apart, the sisters had spoken once a day. Without her sister, without these calls, Alice feels ungrounded.

At dinner, when Alice told Tara her about her sister’s death, Tara became upset, close to distraught. She and Alice had been e-mailing for months. Why hadn’t Alice told her about this? Alice explained that she had been taken up with her family, with arrangements. And she said, simply, “I didn’t think it was something to discuss over e-mail.” Herself in need of support, Alice ended up comforting Tara.

As Tara tells me this story, she says that she was ashamed of her reaction. Her focus should have been—and should now be—on Alice’s loss, not on her own ranking as a confidant. But she feels defensive as well. She had, after all, “been in touch.” She’d e-mailed; she’d made sure that their dinner got arranged. Tara keeps coming back to the thought that if she and Alice had spoken on the telephone to set up their dinner date, she would have learned about her friend’s loss. She says, “I would have heard something in her voice. I would have suspected. I could have drawn her out.” But for Tara, as for so many, the telephone call is for family. For friends, even dear friends, it is close to being off the menu.

Tara avoids the voice but knows she has lost something. For the young, this is less clear. I talk with Meredith, a junior at Silver Academy who several months before had learned of a friend’s death via instant message and had been glad that she didn’t have to see or speak to anyone. She says, “It was a day off, so I was at home, and I hadn’t seen anyone who lives around me, and then my friend Rosie IM’ed me and told me my friend died. I was shocked and everything, but I was more okay than I would’ve been if I saw people. I went through the whole thing not seeing anyone and just talking to people online about it, and I was fine. I think it would’ve been much worse if they’d told me in person.”

I ask Meredith to say more. She explains that when bad news came in an instant message, she was able to compose herself. It would have been “terrible,” she says, to have received a call. “I didn’t have to be upset in front of someone else.” Indeed, for a day after hearing the news, Meredith only communicated with friends by instant message. She describes the IMs as frequent but brief: “Just about the fact of it. Conversations like, ‘Oh, have you heard?’ ‘Yeah, I heard.’ And that’s it.” The IMs let her put her emotions at a distance. When she had to face other people at school, she could barely tolerate the rush of feeling: “The second I saw my friends, it got so much worse.” Karen and Beatrice, two of Meredith’s friends, tell similar stories. Karen learned about the death of her best friend’s father in an instant message. She says, “It was easier to learn about it on the computer. It made it easier to hear. I could take it in pieces. I didn’t have to look all upset to anyone.” Beatrice reflects, “I don’t want to hear bad things, but if it is just texted to me, I can stay calm.”

These young women prefer to deal with strong feelings from the safe haven of the Net. It gives them an alternative to processing emotions in real time. Under stress, they seek composure above all. But they do not find equanimity. When they meet and lose composure, they find a new way to flee: often they take their phones out to text each other and friends not in the room. I see a vulnerability in this generation, so quick to say, “Please don’t call.” They keep themselves at a distance from their feelings. They keep themselves from people who could help.


When I first read how it is through our faces that we call each other up as human beings, I remember thinking I have always felt that way about the human voice. But like many of those I study, I have been complicit with technology in removing many voices from my life.

I had plans for dinner with a colleague, Joyce. On the day before we were to meet, my daughter got admitted to college. I e-mailed Joyce that we would have much to celebrate. She e-mailed back a note of congratulations. She had been through the college admissions process with her children and understood my relief. At dinner, Joyce said that she had thought of calling to congratulate me, but a call had seemed “intrusive.” I admitted that I hadn’t called her to share my good news for the same reason. Joyce and I both felt constrained by a new etiquette but were also content to follow it. “I feel more in control of my time if I’m not disturbed by calls,” Joyce admitted.

Both Joyce and I have gained something we are not happy about wanting. License to feel together when alone, comforted by e-mails, excused from having to attend to people in real time. We did not set out to avoid the voice but end up denying ourselves its pleasures. For the voice can only be experienced in real time, and both of us are so busy that we don’t feel we have it to spare.

Apple’s visual voicemail for the iPhone was welcomed because it saves you the trouble of having to listen to a message to know who sent it. And now there are applications that automatically transcribe voicemail into text. I interview Maureen, a college freshman, who is thrilled to have discovered one of these programs. She says that only her parents send her voicemail: “I love my parents, but they don’t know how to use the phone. It’s not the place to leave long voice messages. Too long to listen to. Now, I can scroll through the voicemail as text messages. Great.”

Here, in the domain of connectivity, we meet the narrative of better than nothing becoming simply better. People have long wanted to connect with those at a distance. We sent letters, then telegrams, and then the telephone gave us a way to hear their voices. All of these were better than nothing when you couldn’t meet face-to-face. Then, short of time, people began to use the phone instead of getting together. By the 1970s, when I first noticed that I was living in a new regime of connectivity, you were never really “away” from your phone because answering machines made you responsible for any call that came in. Then, this machine, originally designed as a way to leave a message if someone was not at home, became a screening device, our end-of-millennium Victorian calling card. Over time, voicemail became an end in itself, not the result of a frustrated telephone call. People began to call purposely when they knew that no one would be home. People learned to let the phone ring and “let the voicemail pick it up.”

In a next step, the voice was taken out of voicemail because communicating with text is faster. E-mail gives you more control over your time and emotional exposure. But then, it, too, was not fast enough. With mobile connectivity (think text and Twitter), we can communicate our lives pretty much at the rate we live them. But the system backfires. We express ourselves in staccato texts, but we send out a lot and often to large groups. So we get even more back—so many that the idea of communicating with anything but texts seems too exhausting. Shakespeare might have said, we are “consumed with that which we are nourished by.”11

I sketched out this narrative to a friend for whom it rang true as a description but seemed incredible all the same. A professor of poetry and a voracious reader, she said, “We cannot all write like Lincoln or Shakespeare, but even the least gifted among of us has this incredible instrument, our voice, to communicate the range of human emotion. Why would we deprive ourselves of that?”

The beginning of an answer has become clear: in text, messaging, and e-mail, you hide as much as you show. You can present yourself as you wish to be “seen.” And you can “process” people as quickly as you want to. Listening can only slow you down. A voice recording can be sped up a bit, but it has to unfold in real time. Better to have it transcribed or avoid it altogether. We work so hard to give expressive voices to our robots but are content not to use our own.

Like the letters they replace, e-mail, messaging, texting, and, more recently, Tweeting carry a trace of the voice. When Tara regretted that she had not called her friend Alice—on the phone she would have heard her friend’s grief—she expressed the point of view of someone who grew up with the voice and is sorry to have lost touch with it. Hers is a story of trying to rebalance things in a traditional framework. We have met Trey, her law partner. He confronts something different, something he cannot rebalance.

My brother found out that his wife is pregnant and he put it on his blog. He didn’t call me first. I called him when I saw the blog entry. I was mad at him. He didn’t see why I was making a big deal. He writes his blog every day, as things happen, that’s how he lives. So when they got home from the doctor—bam, right onto the blog. Actually, he said it was part of how he celebrated the news with his wife—to put it on the blog together with a picture of him raising a glass of champagne and she raising a glass of orange juice. Their idea was to celebrate on the blog, almost in real time, with the photos and everything. When I complained they made me feel like such a girl. Do you think I’m old-school?12

Trey’s story is very different from Tara’s. Trey’s brother was not trying to save time by avoiding the telephone. His brother did not avoid or forget him or show preference to other family members. Blogging is part of his brother’s intimate life. It is how he and his wife celebrated the most important milestone in their life as a family. In a very different example of our new genres of online intimacy, a friend of mine underwent a stem cell transplant. I felt honored when invited to join her family’s blog. It is set up as a news feed that appears on my computer desktop. Every day, and often several times a day, the family posts medical reports, poems, reflections, and photographs. There are messages from the patient, her husband, her children, and her brother, who donated his stem cells. There is progress and there are setbacks. On the blog, one can follow this family as it lives, suffers, and rejoices for a year of treatment. Inhibitions lift. Family members tell stories that would be harder to share face-to-face. I read every post. I send e-mails. But the presence of the blog changes something in my behavior. I am grateful for every piece of information but feel strangely shy about calling. Would it be an intrusion? I think of Trey. Like him, I am trying to get my bearings in a world where the Net has become a place of intimate enclosure.

The Net provides many new kinds of space. On one end of the spectrum, I interview couples who tell me that they text or e-mail each other while in bed. Some say they want to leave a record of a request or a feeling “on the system.” And there are family blogs—places to announce a wedding or the progress of an illness or share photographs with the grandparents. These are all places to be yourself. At the other end of the spectrum, there are places where one constructs an avatar—from games to virtual communities—where people go to find themselves, or to lose themselves, or to explore aspects of themselves. On this spectrum, as we’ve seen, things are never clear-cut. As Audrey put it, a Facebook profile is “an avatar of me.” And when you play Ringo Starr on a simulation of the Beatles, your avatar may feel like a second self. In simulation culture we become cyborg, and it can be hard to return to anything less.