When I am abroad, I can stay in touch with family in friends via video calls, I can send pictures and videos or share them with my social following. Especially the past year has proven that we are lucky to have digital technologies. We may not be able to travel or meet in person due to social distancing, but we can at least see each other on video calls. I am truly grateful for that.
I grew up in the nineties when we only had landlines and computers. I carried a small phone number booklet with me, but I also knew most of the numbers by heart from typing them into the phone. If we agreed to meet up at a certain date, we showed up. We enjoyed each other’s company and we did not post it anywhere. If we took pictures it was with an analogue camera (I usually carried a disposable one because I did not want to lose an expensive real one). We had to wait until the pictures had been developed, which not only took time but was also expensive. Unlike today, it was just not feasible to take thousands of pictures and choose the best one. One shot, that was it. Only later, when the first digital cameras came up in the early 2000s did we take pictures more regularly. But still, the motivation for those pictures was to share them amongst our group of friends – not like today, where most pictures go online.
Compared to today, this seems surreal. Who knows any phone numbers by heart now? I actually do – some at least, my parents’ and my grandmother’s landline and a few of those who still have their very first mobile phone number. Today we keep in touching using various apps – Whatsapp, Line in (South-)East Asia, WeChat in China and the many social media platforms which come and go.
We have never been as connected as today. Yet, I feel that we also have never been more disconnected. When I look around, I see heads bent down towards the phone, people swiping and typing. In the taxi, people tune out everyone else with our headphones, there is no chit chat with strangers or taxi drivers. The phones are on the table when friends meet for dinners and light up or vibrate frequently. And some take even curate the reality around their social media accounts. Snapshots of food, smiling for selfies, instantly sharing everything to their online accounts. I feel that many of us have forgotten how to live in the moment.
All these platforms and channels have made it so easy to stay in touch. And comparatively cheap. When I was a teenager and I was abroad for language classes, calling my parents in Austria cost a little fortune. Now we can even video call for a fraction of the cost. Or send a quick message. Yet, it feels that many of us do not even have time for a text. As mentioned earlier, when I agreed to meet someone when I was a teenager, I had to show up because cancelling last minute was simply not possible. Today it frequently happens that I am already on the way to the meeting and somebody cancels by sending a brief text message, not even bothering to call.
In a recent conversation with a friend I asked them why I had not heard from them in a long time. “I follow your Instagram stories, so I feel I know what’s going on with you,” was their answer. I was surprised. I do share parts of my life on Instagram and this website, but what is shared online is just a small part of who I am, what I do or how I feel. I was shocked that my friend felt we had a connection because they watch my stories. I felt a huge disconnect. Did they not want to have a real conversation to know what is really going on?
When it comes to communication, I am very traditional. I really appreciate it when family and friends call to check up on me. Hence, I try to do the same as often as I can. I love handwritten cards the most. It is such a simple gesture, but in these digital times I find them so much more personal. Somebody sat down and wrote something for me.
Similarly, I want to be in the moment. “If it’s not on Insta, it didn’t happen,” I cringe every single time I hear this. The constant need for sharing everything online with one’s digital following. Well, then a large part of my life never happened. Last week, I went to a restaurant and saw a group of girlfriends documenting their whole meeting on Instagram. They posed for pictures and all stood up to take pictures of the food (which was left almost untouched, its sole purpose was to look good on pictures. When the birthday girl received the cake and everybody was singing, she herself was filming the scene which was later shared to her followers on Instagram. When everything was uploaded, the group left all holding their phones in their hands or staring on the screen while leaving the restaurant.
I just looked up from my screen when writing this Postcard. There was a thunderstorm and the rain was hitting against my window. “That would be such a cool video for Instagram,” I thought. But then I closed my laptop, turned my phone on silent and just watched the rain. Just me, all on my own. And it was not shared to social media – did it actually happen?