Constant Connection

We used to believe technology made us lonely. A whole new body of research says it doesn’t.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Recently a group of Indiana University undergrads volunteered as test subjects in a modern love experiment. Researchers placed electrodes on their faces and feet, asked them to name their current romantic companion or crush, then led them through a simulated exercise in which they told that special someone how they felt, both over email and in a voicemail message.

The researchers hypothesized that their millennial subjects would flush with emotion while articulating their feelings out loud, but effectively disconnect when typing them out online. Speaking, even into an answering machine, just feels more “natural,” “rich,” “exciting,” and “physiologically arousing” than typing does, they presumed.

But when the experiment concluded, the researchers found the opposite to be true. The “people who sent romantic emails were more emotionally aroused and used stronger and more thoughtful language than those who left voicemails,” Indiana University announced in a press release last week. Previous scholarship had suggested that “email and other text communications don’t really work very well,” researcher Alan Dennis said. He now believes that his subjects, many of whom were born after AOL brought email to the masses, are evidence that humans have successfully “adapted” to this new romantic environment.

Social science researchers are adapting, too. A number of recent studies have taken the conventional wisdom—that technology alienates us from other people and our own emotions—and flipped it on its head. “This view of technology-based communication as being more superficial and of a lower quality than other forms of communication was especially prevalent in earlier research,” University of North Carolina–Greensboro education researchers Christine Murray and Emily Campbell noted in an article published in Couple & Relationship Therapy this May. But “increasingly researchers are examining the potential value of these interactions.”

In their own online survey conducted among 225 Americans—gay and straight, and ranging in age from 18 to 78—Murray and Campbell found that virtual connection can “promote sexuality, intimacy, affection, and flirtation” among partners. “He can surprise me with sweet messages,” one participant said. “We e-mail love letters,” said another. And since there are seemingly endless ways to connect, a flirtatious rhythm can be “maintained in virtually any circumstance,” Murray and Campbell wrote.

Partners Skype when they can’t visit each other, and text when they can’t talk out loud. And while some participants said virtual interactions could seem confusing or superficial, many attested to deep emotional connections forged online. For a study published last month in Media, Culture & Society, communications scholar Hua Su interviewed twenty- and thirtysomething students and young professionals in Beijing about how they love now. One female student, Wangtao, told Su that she’d been dating a guy for just three months but had already amassed more than 600 pages of chat records with him. Over chat, Wangtao and her guy invent pet names, trade silly banter, call back to inside jokes, and fall into long, deep conversations she calls “communication of souls.” Just as previous generations tucked love letters into boxes of mementos, Wangtao takes screenshots of her most meaningful chats and saves them to a folder on her computer. As female college student Xiu’er told Su, “it’s a blessing to have someone listen to your nonsense.”

Whether they’re living in different dorms or on different continents, Su’s subjects found ways to “ritualize such daily activities as morning greetings, dinner conversations, and bedtime kisses” online. They share photos of the lunches they eat, delight one another with Instagram likes, and chat over webcam to engineer a sense of “proximity.” Some young couples even keep the camera on while they cook, eat, study, and play video games. One thirtysomething woman told Su about a time when she was away from her fiancé on a Tokyo business trip, and an earthquake rattled her hotel. That night, she and her fiancé “kept the webcam on while she slept so that he could watch over her and alert her in case of danger,” Su wrote. These marathon video chatters don’t feel obligated to keep up constant conversation when the camera is on, but they feel free to “start an interaction whenever they please.”

Several of Su’s young Chinese subjects told her that in the early stages of their relationships, they only felt comfortable speaking in intimate terms over text.* In Su’s University of Iowa dissertation, published this year, one 30-year-old woman says that a love note that sounds corny in person often “feels deeper and more nuanced on the paper.” When recent college grad Xiaolin met his girlfriend, his “heart was filled with emotions and sentiments” for her that he was too embarrassed to articulate in person. “I only dared to send her messages secretly,” Xiaolin said. “I could only write it down.” Now that their online flirtation has blossomed into a full-fledged relationship, Xiaolin is more comfortable showing affection in person. But he still appreciates their online connection, especially when he’s stuck at work or surrounded by friends in his dorm. With text messages, Xiaolin says, “there’s no need to consider other people, nor the content.” Even in public, “you have your privacy.”

Well, not exactly. Text messages provide a space that shields lovers from eavesdropping friends and strangers, but they also erode privacy between the lovers themselves. Su notes that couples used to be able to use “spatial segregation” to maintain a healthy distance from one another and have some alone time. Not anymore. So while Beijing’s young lovers are now “better able to maintain a continual sense of togetherness,” Su says, they “have more difficulty protecting personal boundaries and being alone.” As Murray and Campbell put it, “The multiple forms of communication available to couples may lead some partners to feel overly accessible and smothered.”

Even at times when people are otherwise disconnected from their social networks—at work, at school, at a restaurant, in church—many young lovers expect a level of “exclusive access” befitting their “exclusive relationship,” Su reports. Radio silence is perceived as either a provocative choice or a sign of disaster. And the “threshold beyond which lovers start to worry about no response has dropped from weeks or days to hours or minutes,” Su writes. One male college student, Chengang, told Su that an online chat to his girlfriend that wasn’t instantly returned “would make him wonder whether something went wrong in their relationship.”

Chengang’s concern may be heightened by the lack of explicit ground rules to help contextualize the silence. There’s no communitywide standard for how and when to text or call or video chat at various stages of relationships. In a recent collection of essays, French information science scholar Pascal Lardellier goes so far as to argue that crafting a “new relationship code” in the digital age would represent an “unprecedented feat in the history of humanity as well as that of romantic relationships.” That’s a little dramatic—technological innovations and social revolutions have been upending relationship rules long before the smartphone arrived—but it does seem possible that the faster technology changes, the harder it is to establish community norms before a new romantic innovation changes the game again.

I’m sure the introduction of telegraphs and telephones also caused friction between early adopters and their Luddite loves. But as potential channels of communication have fractured and exploded—and as gadgets have shrunk to personal, pocket size—it can be hard to know even the type of technology your beloved is working with. Take Xiaoma and Pengfei, a young couple interviewed by Su: Xiaoma had a habit of setting himself as “invisible” on chat while he was at work so he could exchange messages with co-workers without being disturbed by friends. But curiously, Pengfei still always sent him a chat the moment he logged online. He later discovered that she had secretly downloaded a computer program that exposed otherwise invisible contacts by their IP addresses. Xiaoma was torn between finishing his work and satisfying “Pengfei’s demand of attention.” Eventually, the couple agreed they had to limit their online chats to purely logistical matters in order for the relationship to survive.

Lardellier compares modern technology to “an umbilical cord”— it “nourishes” and “calms” those who use it, but also habituates them to a state of constant “reassurance.” That old narrative about how technology isolates human beings from one another and themselves has flipped 180 degrees. Now the fashionable fear is that technology might be connecting people too much. Luckily, couples have seemingly limitless ways to get in touch and talk it out.

*Correction, Sept. 11, 2015: This piece originally misstated that Su is a man. Su is a woman.