smartphones

David Brooks, New York Times columnist, says a lot of crazy things. In today’s column, he’s back at it, claiming that redistributive measures have no place redressing income inequality. I’m not interested in that. However, I am interested in his previous column, which appeared on Tuesday, where Brooks made one of his periodic forays into sociology and modern anthropology. Brooks’ basic point is that technology has changed the way we make and break friendships.

Communication that was once honest and life-enhancing has become perverted — after a transition — by resentment, neediness or narcissism.

We all know men and women who stalk ex-lovers online; people who bombard a friend with emails even though that friendship has evidently cooled; mentors who resent their former protégés when their emails are no longer instantly returned; people who post faux glam pictures on Instagram so they can “win the breakup” against their ex.

Instant communication creates a new sort of challenge. How do you gracefully change your communication patterns when one person legitimately wants to step back or is entering another life phase?

Brooks is hardly the first to engage this topic, but it feels different when it rises to the level of a place like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, or The New York Times. Brooks, 53, seems most interested in guiding teenagers and young adults (they are, after all, his students at Yale) through the rocky shoals of parental clinging and phone pinging. And that’s fine. But I’m a little more interested in the changes technology has wrought for social relations between people a little closer to Brooks’ age – parents in their 40s and 50s. And with a few headline-making exceptions, I don’t think most of us are overly stressing over the minutiae of the latest friends to unfollow us or cease chiming in on our group emails.

Brooks addresses himself to all the people hurt by friends walking away, and all the friends who would like to help them. Reading him, you might assume that the main reaction to losing a friend, online or in person, is hurt or anger. I want to speak to a reaction that Brooks ignores, another possible reaction to a friend’s sudden, or gradual, online invisibility: pity.

Now, I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to sound narcissistic. Let me get back to that in the caveats below. But first: technology has enabled Living Out LOUD! in a manner that the Holly Hunter and Queen Latifah characters in the 1998 film Living Out Loud could never have imagined. Many people reveal many things. Many others chime in, and don’t, and that’s fine. People text, tweet, update, blog, play group video games, google-hangout, pinterest, live-chat, Skype, Instagram, etc. Indelicate influxes of information on everyone you’ve ever known is just a few clicks away.

Or is it? I’m lucky enough to have 685 friends on facebook. That’s not even half of everyone I’ve ever known somewhat well. Maybe I’ve lived more lives than many, but that number barely includes half of my relatives (say, first cousin or closer), half of my college friends, half the people I knew when I lived in Washington D.C. and Madrid, half of my former co-workers at various places, half of my friends at two different grad schools, or even half the neighbors and fellow parents and co-dog-walkers I see regularly today. Sure, some people, like my cousin Brian, are more Instagram than facebook, and others more attached to other specific social media. But the rough math stands, as I think it does for many of us who jumped into the Web 2.0 pool at the age of 35 or older (say, after 2007 or so): where the heck are half of the people we ever knew?

Reading Brooks, I might take this as rejection. Being over 35, I don’t feel rejected (perhaps I should!) as much as I feel wonder and a certain sympathy. Sure, there may be a few cases of long-held grievances, but I think that in most cases, people don’t want to join the online party because of resistance to living out loud. I just hope they’re doing okay, and I hasten to add that in some cases, I realize they are perfectly happy “off the grid.” But more often than not, I worry about them; if they don’t want to share their lives, is that because they feel like their lives aren’t worth sharing?

Important caveat #1: In a way that Brooks couldn’t possibly understand, I have not achieved my career goals. I am lucky enough to live in a lovely place with a woman I love; I can post photos of kids I love, though of course regular readers here know that my family is hardly a Norman Rockwell painting. You don’t have to have a perfect life to be on social media.

Important caveat #2: I know what some of them (and their defenders) would say: us Living-Out-Loud-ers are too over-digitized, too spread thin, too worried about clever retorts and cloying updates. Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but every day I go to a park for at least an hour with my kids and/or dog. “Spread thin” is different for everyone, and I respect anyone who needs a break from social media, but I happen to know that many of my regularly-online friends are happier being back in frequent contact with old friends than we were 15 years ago, when we’d lost touch with almost everyone. Yes, I understand that people tend to over-accentuate positive developments on facebook; I also understand that for centuries before there was facebook, people often put on fake smiles when they saw strangers. Are the reasons really that different? We want to live happy lives, and sometimes that means talking ourselves into it. There’s always someone with whom we can share the more brutal truth, right?

Of course I *could* call or write to any particular person. Realistically, I’m not going to write a personal “hey are you okay?” email to 700 different people. Even if I did, and even if I found out that 700 particular persons are fine, that won’t change the reality, which is that I wish more of my lifetime’s acquaintances were here, at the online party. Realistically, if they’re not here, their lives may not be as rosy as our camping-trip “off the grid” fantasies.

Let me give you an example of what I mean: three years ago, my college friend Sarah, bless her, sent an email to scores of friends telling/begging us to come to our 20-year college reunion. About 15 of us showed up, to join…maybe 10 or 15 others who happened to come. Out of hundreds and hundreds of people who had attended Stevenson College at UCSC during our year. Sure, maybe people can’t afford to travel; maybe people want to put UCSC in their rear-view mirror for various reasons. But the ratio of people at graduation to people at the 20-year reunion was disturbing (beyond the funerals I’d attended of a very few we’d lost). Thoreau said “most men live lives of quiet desperation.” I hate seeing that in slow motion.

David Brooks wants to reach out to millennials who look at their phones and feel rejected. I want to reach out to people in the post-baby-boom, pre-millennial generation who refuse to do much looking at social networks at all. We miss you. The internet is a massive web of chatter and can be more salacious than salubrious. People fall in and fall out, without replying to direct questions, and that’s okay. Online strangers are strange, and sometimes your online friends are stranger. But sometimes not. Like at any party, there’s a lot of silliness and often something great to gravitate to. And if you keep your focus on the positive, on what it is instead of what it isn’t or what it could be, then the tech that brings you attenuated versions of your old friends can become one of your best friends.