The wherewithal required to stay inside with a movie or a book or a game is as close to the x axis as it gets – physically, psychologically, and financially, it requires almost no effort. Thus the rise of flakery.
Flakery—the habitual failure to follow through on social commitments—is like a new piece of tender in the social economy: we all accept it. And the sympathy often evoked by the flake’s scapegoat, whether it’s work, sickness, tiredness, or lack of funds, lubricates our acceptance. But flakery is a problem, and here’s why:
1. It makes people feel unimportant in a concrete, nondelusional way. The flake implicitly denies that other people’s lives are as real and as important as their own.
2. It replicates like a virus. By flaking, you give license to others to do the same. And even if you don’t flake, you make it socially acceptable by accepting it.
It’s no longer particularly weird for people to not show up to an event. With some, it’s gotten to the point where you’re more surprised when they do show up.
I don’t believe most people are so inconsiderate as to make plans with the intention of flaking. I do, however, believe that we commit to things that we’re ambivalent about, knowing they can easily fire off a text message a couple hours before the scheduled engagement or post an apologetic message on Facebook the following day.
Which brings me to the Internet. As a source of information and entertainment, it’s decimated our need for one another, and the social networks dull the pain of that loss by making us feel like we’re still maintaining a social life, just online.
But on Facebook, no one ever says “Guess what happened today?” like they would to a person. They just go straight for the report.
And no one ever asks “Who’s the richest woman in the world?” or “What time do the Packers play this week?” or “Is there a MacBook program like MS Paint that I can use to draw some unscientific line graphs?” because they can just look it up and get the answer with more authority in less time and with less ego risk than it would take to pronounce the question and listen to someone answer it.
Meanwhile, online communication has taken on qualities—intermittent, coded, self-centered, lexically deficient—that we would use to communicate with machines. Tangibly, we are contacting mere machines: I enter it into mine, and you extract it from yours. And I am not there with you when you receive my message, which further undermines the human, intimacy-building property that, for most of history, constituted the very crux of communication.
Which may be why in recent years I’ve noticed a significant increase in people describing situations as “awkward.” The incidents they refer to are almost always in real life––a term we now use to distinguish the life that takes place in spacetime (the kind you can actually feel) from its 5+ shadowy iterations (Facebook, Twitter, OKCupid, Tumblr, texting, etc.). Maybe the rise of the word “awkward” represents the crossing of a threshold: now that the majority of our interactions are electronically mediated (meaning we can blatantly ignore each other, respond to things at our leisure, and refine every message until it says what we want to say), the unprocessed nature of real life—something we never noticed before—stands in sharp relief.
Awkward is just a less jarring word for uncomfortable. But who was ever totally comfortable tripping on a sidewalk slab? Being called the wrong name? Asking a woman who’s not pregnant when she’s due? Walking into an unlocked bathroom to see that someone’s already sitting there? Waving to someone who was waving at someone else? Saying “I love you” and getting “thanks” in return?
No one. But because our default state is one of unprecedented comfort (Grubhub and Netflix, anyone?), we notice the discomfort more. And that’s the rub.