Writing about technology and social media is tricky. It’s incredibly easy to come of as a Luddite. When you describe the emotional and spiritual fallout catalyzed by particular devices or programs, no matter how many disclaimers you give, it’s almost impossible not to sound like you’re scapegoating the technology (Facebook or Twitter or smartphones, etc) for the problems of the human heart.

For example, you lay out the data about escalating levels of loneliness and anxiety and unhappiness correlated to increased social media usage and what people tend to hear–understandably!–is that they need to quit Facebook. Even if the person saying these things happens to run a media platform, one that takes ample advantage of the many opportunities afforded by social media.

This technology is what makes Mockingbird possible, after all. A staff of three people could not put out a magazine of any quality were it not for the innovations that have democratized the publishing industry so radically. Without Amazon we wouldn’t be able to distribute our books, and without Skype we couldn’t organize our conferences. Like anything, there is good, and there is bad.

The reason to talk about social media is not because it is eroding our welfare in some sinister and unprecedented way (tho the jury’s still out!), but because it serves as such a ubiquitous point of connection with both others and ourselves–albeit not in the way it claims to. Social media provides us with a public laboratory of identity-formation, the likes of which the world has never seen. Our collective obsession with personal righteousness has been made embarrassingly public, with all the pluses and minuses, compulsions and distractions, fears and anxieties, that entails.

But human nature hasn’t changed. If it weren’t Facebook amplifying our inherent dysfunctions, it’d be something else, with alternate emphases and outcomes. At least in this case there are some truly wonderful upsides.

So why beat the drum again today? Well, Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, and in conjunction The NY Times printed an incredible article by Daniel Jones, the man responsible for editing their popular Modern Love column. No one has a better seat to the circus of American romance than Jones, and he thankfully took the holiday as an opportunity to report on some of the changing contours of this most universal of human pursuits (to love and be loved), with a particular emphasis on how social media is changing the way we relate.

The title should be a giveaway, “Romance at Arm’s Length”. Jones explores a new trend in online relationships, the advent of what he calls a “Soulmate in a Box” (SMIAB), or “a person we rarely if ever meet and in some cases never speak to, but to whom we feel closer than anyone else”–a trend Spike Jonze expertly depicts in Her. Needless to say, law and grace are all over the place:

How do these relationships start? Typically with two strangers crossing paths via social media: on Facebook, through dating sites or by retweeting and “favoriting” until tweeting turns to flirting. At the start it’s just harmless fun, a distraction. No need to think seriously about it, because what could happen? He or she lives 2,000 miles away!

Ironically, it’s often this presumed lack of possibility that enables the couple to grow so close so fast… those who meet a potential Smiab online tell themselves it can’t go anywhere. Which then frees it up to go somewhere. And soon their once dismissible flirtation has snowballed into the most obsessive relationship in their lives.

We’re always searching for new ways of finding love that don’t involve having to feel insecure and vulnerable, because who wants to feel insecure and vulnerable? That’s the worst part of the whole love game, putting oneself out there to be judged and rejected. So when we get the chance to hide — whether through typed messages we can edit and control, or by saying whatever we’d like over Skype without expecting the relationship to ever turn physical — we’re freed from much of that anxiety, and we’re fooled into thinking this may be a better and truer way of having a relationship.

Amazing stuff. For those keeping score at home, what we have here is the freedom from expectation allowing intimacy to grow, but then the need and compulsion (and technologically-assisted ability) to control preventing it from ever truly blossoming. It would appear this is the exact inverse of where college students were just a few years ago:

william-haefeli-any-healthy-relationship-requires-fundamental-acting-skills-new-yorker-cartoonThese kinds of self-protective impulses were on full display in the thousands of stories I received during the two Modern Love college essay contests I held, in 2008 and 2011. In the first contest, the most common theme among the undergraduates’ submissions was their struggle with the seemingly ubiquitous practice of hooking up — having casual sexual encounters with no strings attached. Intellectually, the behavior made sense to them. Sex was fun, or could be, but relationships can get messy and demanding. So why not try to neatly separate the simpler and more pleasurable part from the messier and potentially more upsetting part? Slicing their actions from their feelings, however, wasn’t turning out to be such a clean cut.

Three years later, college students were already trying something else. The most commonly written-about topic in 2011 was online-only love affairs. Rather than trying to figure out how to navigate a sexual relationship that excluded emotion, they were trying to figure out how to navigate an emotional relationship that excluded sex…

Unlike hookups, these relationships are all about sharing your every thought, idea and emotional burp. But they are also, crucially, about being able to close your laptop and turn off your phone whenever you want to and continue about your life as you wish, unencumbered

The desires at work here are completely sympathetic. Who doesn’t want to get what they want (sex or intimacy) without any cost or vulnerability? I know I do. It would appear, however, that there are some incontrovertible factors that cannot be circumvented in the pursuit of affection. Much as we wish it weren’t the case, love without sacrifice isn’t really love. Or at least it’s not experienced as such. No one ultimately feels loved when their profile, or online projection of their identity, is what’s getS the hoped-for response from another person. Because we know that the object of affection is a reduction, i.e. not actually us. So we may even feel lonelier than before. Fortunately, perhaps, these SMIAB things tend to run their course. As Jones says:

When the messy parts of us aren’t on display from the beginning of a relationship — when awkwardness and fumbling and being forced to be present without a mouse-click escape hatch all enter the scene — it’s hard to catch up. As good as it felt to be able to create an ideal version of ourselves, it can feel jarringly worse to have that control suddenly yanked away.

He then closes with a devastating, but 100% believable story along these lines. A true must-read. And while we’re on the subject, the brilliant Sherry Turkle spoke about a lot of this to Bill Moyers back in October. Favorite (and most terrifying) observation has to be that “things that used to be dystopian are now being portrayed utopian”, e.g. the dinner table Facebook ad above, ht VH:

Sherry Turkle on Being Alone Together from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

So, yes, there is real reason for concern here. We have a hard enough time connecting without our attention being perpetually divided. But there’s also so much opportunity, especially for those who claim to carry a message of love (J. Hendrix)–to all generations–love that doesn’t avoid the mundane or ugly parts of us, love that miraculously takes those things on itself, often in spite of fierce resistance, yet never out of duty or obligation.

Instead of reducing or mediating the reality of who we are, the “Love which moves the sun and other stars” suffers and forgives our lovelessness (Dante). I’ve even heard it has the power to breathe new life into those who’ve been clobbered by emotional self-sabotage, both the charmers and the creeps. Which means there’s hope that our romantic quagmires and lonely hearts’ clubs may not be the final word this February. We are talking, of course, about a soulmate. Not in a box, mind you, but… on a cross. Happy Valentine’s Day.