When I began to use e-mail pretty regularly, around 1989, I felt uneasy about not sending a reply message, and anxious when I did not receive one in return. Had my correspondent not checked e-mail? Or refrained from clicking on the reply button?
On the phone, or in person, you can provide cues when you want to ignore someone, such as changing the subject, or making a hurried departure. Not so online. There is no explanation for silence. We are left to speculate.
It’s possible I was overly sensitive to any unexplained parting of ways during online communication; this instantaneous, disembodied form of exchange was new to me. My sensitivity has since increased, but it’s also been diffused. We now have myriad ways to speak to each other online. The dialogic has become more rapid-fire, specific, contextual, and personal, but conversely, impersonal.
Social media and its “notification” services give us more plausible opportunities and excuses not to reply, to avoid goodbye, to sidestep questions, to refuse accountability, to abandon. Sorry, I wasn’t reading Facebook the day you announced your firstborn. No, I didn’t see that great article about Rupert Murdoch because it was lost in my 1000-following newsfeed.
Blackberry, “BBM Flirt D&R Commercial” (March, 2011)
Of all forms of online communication, texting (SMS, or Short Message Service) offers the most intimacy and exclusivity, but this freights the significance of not replying much more heavily. Not replying to a public posting or even a direct message on Facebook can be thought of as a decision of non-elocution. The same goes for opting out of tweeting or responding to a Tweet. But in an SMS system like Blackberry Messenger®, when we are alerted the moment our text message has been read by the recipient, a non-reply could seem like an insult. And with SMS, it seems we foster a sense of presence and absence simultaneously.
The inability to see our interlocutor makes us vulnerable. It takes a little getting used to. In this scene from “Paris, Texas,” Nastassja Kinski stands as a metaphor for all of us, waiting for replies, wondering what our disembodied interlocutors really want from us. She sends out messages and gets no return. She goes along, tells the man she cannot see that it’s ok, she is a “real good listener,” a sort of “hey, not sure if you got my last email…”
Eventually though she asks him what he wants — the need for dialogue on her part is too great. But the man mostly refuses to reply; he even leaves the room unbeknownst to her. She doesn’t realize, of course, that the man behind the curtain is her lost husband, a once intimate who is now estranged. “Is there something I can do for ya?” she asks, offering to take off her sweater. She assumes he wants sex. He doesn’t want sex, and he doesn’t offer much conversation either. He is only there to determine if she is having relationships with clients outside of the peep show.
He wants to know, finally, if it’s even possible for her to step outside of the prescribed room. Can we step outside these disembodied rooms? How tangible can our dialogue become?
Will we look at each other’s faces again?
– Nyla Matuk