I’m currently reading a dissertation as part of a reading committee. While I don’t want to reveal too much (there’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s not my work to release), I will share one point that has me thinking. In the author’s analysis of why the internet is conducive for fostering intimacy, she notes that even in the “lean nature of a brief electronic note,” much can be said. In other words, we can read a lot into what is there, and feel the connection between another.
While I think this can be true, I also believe something else can happen: we can read a “lean” message and OVER-interpret its meaning. After all, sometimes a brief message is just that — and there is no deeper meaning behind the words. I can see youth falling victim to something along these lines when getting a note from a crush or potential friend — maybe because when I was young, I was vulnerable to this. I could dwell on the smallest little interaction, searching for the meaning behind it while the person in question had long since forgotten it: after all, there was no meaning to be had. I have since seen this tendency when I was a sexpert/relationship advice person for teens. One of the most common questions I would get from youth all over the country was simply this: “does (s)he like me?” Of course, there was always a story to accompany the question, that went something along the lines of:
“I like this guy and I want to know if he likes me. Today, at our lockers, I dropped my book and he picked it up for me and smiled. I thanked him and he said he would see me later. Then, in math class, I think I thought him looking at me. I think about him all the time. Just yesterday he even sort of waved at me in the hall! What do you think? Should I ask him out?”
This was in the early stages of the internet (1998-2000) and IM was alive and kicking, but not in full swing. I can’t imagine the context I would have gotten along with these questions if there was extensive IM conversations involved. I simple 🙂 would turn into “he likes me;” a long conversation online might turn into a meaningful time together, when it was simply something to do while working on a homework assignment or talking to nine other people that night. Or, it could indeed be the start of a new love. We simply don’t know. When is lean, lean and when is it packed with inneundo and implication? And can we really ever tell without, well asking and as a result taking away the brevity? I’m not sure if we can, but I do believe it’s another layer we need to better understand if we are to appreciate how online communication shapes love and relationships.