Social Networks: The more we are connected, the more we are split apart.

One of my part-time jobs is to teach English as a foreign language, so I often ask my students about what do they do in their free time in order to fetch some examples we can work in class. In one of these sessions I asked a group of teenagers how often did they check their e-mail; their answer was basically “Nah, no one checks their e-mail anymore”.

That response surprised me quite a bit. Of course the reason behind that answer was obvious; instant messaging applications such as Facebook, Skype, or WhatsApp have rendered e-mails obsolete. Later on, when I had a group of adults on class I asked them about this very topic, and found out that –despite all these new means of communication– they still check their e-mails regularly, as well as they expressed my own concern toward how the youth is losing the skill of writing letters (or e-mails); something they will eventually require in order to procure and/or conserve a job.

I made sure to include that for later classes, but that’s another story.

I hate to say “back in the day” when I’m still in my early thirties, but back in the day we could wait ‘till we got back home to tell, call, or write our friends and family about that funny/interesting/emotional thing that happened to us during our daily routine. Today, we’re all constantly “connected”.

People can inform their peers about what’s going on the moment it happens, and we’re used to learn where our folks are, what they’re doing, and whom they are hanging with; while that’s a nice perk of this generation, you can see people using this technology wrong everywhere. Very often you’ll see social gatherings with at least someone hunching over any kind device, talking remotely with someone away from that reunion, instead of interacting with the people they’re supposed to be gathering with.

More than a matter of manners, I fear people is losing the art of having meaningful communication to each other thanks to social networks and instant messaging, some people are so desperate to tell the others what’s going on right now, that they’re losing the chance of narrating a meaningful anecdote.

We’re used to have it all immediately. Since we’re all connected today, there’s no need to wait for someone when they’re supposedly always there. Social connectivity is a trap you might get yourself into if you’re not careful, and it’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way a few months ago.

halo-3-odst-firefightA couple of years back, I got to know a person; a friend of a friend over Xbox Live; let’s call her Carrie . We all met each other because we shared a common goal: we wanted to unlock some Achievements on Halo 3: ODST that needed a full 4-player party to get them.

We never managed to agree on a certain date to actually work on getting those Achievements, but Carrie and I ended up playing a few games together and talking to each other. We learnt that we shared some other things in common, like gaming preferences, ages, and a few goals in life.

After a few sessions talking through Xbox Live, we shared our e-mail addresses and moved on to MSN Messenger, but mostly we kept sending e-mails back and forth since I usually was working out of town. We talked about life, videogames, and some of our favorite franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Halo.

Back then, I was still trying to get the time to finish my Master Degree on Engineering (which I had been postponing for a few years), and later on she got herself interested in doing an MBA abroad. Eventually, she was accepted to study her MBA, and had to sell her car, games, and console in order to gather all the money she needed to go.

Some time later, she got herself a new console, and as much as we planned to play Gears of War 3 over Xbox Live, we never managed to actually do so since our schedules and the difference in time zones made it nearly impossible.

At some point she told me “I’d better not finish my Master’s degree before you finish yours”. By that time I had my thesis mostly done, but I was still having a hard time doing all the paperwork required at the University, and not being close to civilization most of the week made this a very hard task. So, yes, she graduated from her MBA before I did.

She was really into finding a job in U.K. but apparently that’s harder than you can possibly imagine. So she had to go back to her family’s house after her studies were done. The next time we talked, she told me there was another reason why she had to come back: she had cancer.

Since she was going through her chemotherapy, there were a few times she wasn’t feeling quite good, I tried my best keeping the good mood every time we interacted; we mostly never talked about her condition, and I never asked about how she was going through that (something I also did back when a close relative went through the same circumstance), if she wanted to talk about cancer with me, I bet she’d have just brought the subject. But no, back then she was mostly interested in talking about Halo 4, Resident Evil 6, and how much she despised Assassin’s Creed III.

human-networks1Later on, she started showing some signs of progress. She was feeling better, and she slowly went back to work; she was still under treatment so there were a few days when she felt a little down. Due to many reasons, it got harder for us to keep interacting online, but from what I could tell from some of our conversations and what she posted to facebook, she was mostly embracing her new chance in life.

Carrie kept pushing me forward to finish my Master’s Degree, and later last year I was finally working my way out of it! I changed my job some time ago, and now that I was home most of the time, we kept in touch to each other over Skype and Facebook; it was a while since the last time any of us wrote an e-mail since we kept running on each other at any of those services.

Later on I took a bus to defend my thesis the next morning at the University, and on October 7th I finally nailed my title . I went home and talk to my friends and family all about it. I remember sending a message to Carrie to let her know that everything went OK, and I was looking forward to meet her over Xbox Live, Facebook or Skype to let her know all the messy details.

Without the weight of my unfinished Master’s Degree on my shoulders, my life went back to normal. Around this point, Carrie and I kind of lost track of each other, I kept trying to catch up with her, but even though we kept interacting over Facebook, it was a long ago since the last time we actually had a conversation.

I could have just sent her an e-mail like in the old days, but I had gotten too used to talking with her in real time. After an embarrassing long time waiting, I finally decided to write her an e-mail; I let her know that I couldn’t keep waiting till the next time we met up online, and I was eager to know how she was doing as well as let her know about how my life keep progressing after getting my degree.

A few days passed by without an answer to my e-mail, I thought about several reasons why she hadn’t had the time to write me back, but the real the reason became clear later, after a friend of hers wrote on her Facebook wall: “For those of us who weren’t aware, Carrie passed away on December 11th…”, followed by the wake and cremation details.

I was shocked in a big way after that, even though I was aware of Carrie’s condition, her ongoing good mood made me forget that she was still struggling with cancer. It’s hard to grieve the loss of an “online friend”. Until that moment, I didn’t know how does someone’s Facebook wall looks like when you’re gone; many other friends gathered around and left their thoughts and condolences even months after her decease.

For me, the hardest part to let go was the question: “Why didn’t I write that e-mail earlier?”

Because we are connected, that’s why. I was so used to talk in real time through instant messaging that I totally forgot that there are other ways to communicate-let me correct that, there are better ways to communicate.

Instant messaging is great for having conversations and small talking with others, but–as much as it is preferred by everyone–it just doesn’t hold the same impact as receiving a thoughtful and well-written e-mail. Possibly, nothing would’ve changed if I wrote that letter before, but surely I would have loved to know what she was going through instead of just assuming the reasons why she hadn’t been around for some time.

So, if you’re feeling like telling something to someone you care, please, don’t wait till the next time you see them online, there’s always another way you can interact with people, and e-mail is still around as one of the most infallible ways to communicate to each other.

“Hey, don’t give up.” – Carrie told me with a smile, right before I logged off the last time we met. I’ll sure remember that the next time I rely on a social network to do all the job when I could try harder to stay “connected” with someone.

Daniel Castro

Daniel Castro

Daniel is an engineer, teacher, and freelance writer and translator. He considers himself blessed to be born during the the times video games were created, and has followed their development as an entertainment and artistic media ever since. He loves talking about video games as much as he enjoys playing them, and he's always ready to introduce gaming culture to a newer audience.

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