Before I moved to another continent, Skype was a silly novelty for me, something I would do every once in a while with friends who lived in other cities, making faces and giggling about how cool it was that we could see each other from so far away. Now, I have entire relationships via video chat and instant messenger. I spend time with family, friends, and lovers, solely in a virtual space, across thousands of miles and multiple time zones.
My best friend Michael got a huge tattoo all up the back of his arm, and I’ve only seen it on Skype. I want to touch it, to run my fingers over the ink. But it exists to me only in a computer window. I wait for him past midnight until he wakes up and sends me his first message of the day. Twelve time zones away means I’m not only separated by space. It means I’m coming home drunk while you’re having lunch, and you’re waking up while I’m going to bed. It means I’m in the future and you’re behind. Life back home keeps going on and on without me, while I watch on the internet.
Technology is revolutionary, sure, but it is also a cruel joke. I can see you and I can hear you, and it feels like we’re together, but I will never, ever touch you. The joke only gets worse when the connection cuts out, our faces turn to digitised Monet paintings, and our words speed up, slow down, and garble into an indecipherable mess. I curse those sharks biting at the underwater cables and send a “Sorry, Asian internet!” apology via instant message. “Typing is so 1998. We were in the future! Try again!” my friend writes back from Philadelphia.
Our generation is indeed spoiled. The older among us scoff at these first-world problems. “I remember long distance phone calls!” they say. “I remember letters!” (What the hell are those?) I had one pen-pal when I was seven, but then the World Wide Web took over and instant messaging happened and now, even that is obsolete. A study from the Pew Research Center this year reported that some 47% of teens now use services like Skype to keep in touch, with 91% of those using a mobile phone to access the internet. We want instant gratification in the form of Face Time. We want to be present. And to an extent, the internet allows us to do that.
Last year was my first holiday season away from home. Americans hold Christmas so dear, that missing one is almost akin to sacrilege. But I was in Istanbul and I couldn’t afford a flight all the way back to Florida, so my mom set up her computer on the kitchen counter and Skyped me in. One of my oldest childhood memories — helping my mom bake cookies for the holidays — was recontextualised as I watched from across the Atlantic. I was there, but really, I wasn’t. My family often Skypes me into functions, placing my disembodied head on the table so everyone can peer into the screen and small talk.
I even introduced my new boyfriend to my parents over Skype. I fell in love with a Dutch man in Amsterdam, and I brought him home for dinner on the internet. I’ve since moved away from him, too, but sometimes he reads to me over video chat while I fall asleep. I wake up in the morning alone, with a blank computer screen. The way technology facilitates this intimacy is amazing, but I wonder how it affects us, and if it’s actually good for us.
A 2014 Cornell University study suggested that despite being physically distant, couples in long-distance relationships feel more intimate than couples who remain geographically close, thanks to the internet. And it’s true, sometimes when I Skype my best friend, we have little to talk about, because we’ve already been messaging all day anyway. He knows everything about my life because I can message him a play-by-play anytime I want.
Ethnographer Stefana Broadbent calls this a “continuous channel”; an avenue which users can leave open in the background while they multi-task throughout the day. These conversations rarely have beginnings and ends, but are instead an intermittent flow of correspondence. Moreover, Broadbent has found that these kinds of channels are often confined to a circle of five to six partners, regardless of the complete number of members in any one social network. And it’s true, out of my 1,011 Facebook friends, I only message about five on a daily basis, and most of these live on other continents.
But how do we convey complicated non-verbal cues, like facial expressions and body language? The internet’s answer: emojis. These little facial substitutes help us clarify the meaning behind our words. Emojis have been around for a long time, since the old days of punctuation mark smiley faces. But very recently the medium has evolved, with the advent of Facebook Messenger’s stickers and GIFs. I now find it hard to express myself in an instant message without a well-timed GIF of Beyonce flipping her hair or a cat falling off a table. The internet is not only drastically altering the landscape of our social relationships, but re-defining how we exchange ideas and convey meaning, too.
These “continuous channels” give us a sense of omnipresence. People who are not at all physically involved in my life are somehow still fully present at any moment. It’s bittersweet, and it often hurts, this tease of keeping in touch without being able to touch, the substitution of a pixelated video stream or an animated Facebook sticker for a real-life facial expression. But it is ultimately a gift for those of us with a penchant for expatriating. We are not normal people; we love to leave. But when we inevitably miss those that we have left, the internet is there for us. So if you’re sad that I’m gone, all you have to do is Skype me. I’m always here. I’m online.