Basically I was being a chicken, and unfair to a good person to boot. But I’d allowed all my online problem-solving sessions to give me a false sense of momentum. Via Gchat, I’d created an alternate dimension in which I was breaking up with my boyfriend all the time, while the actual relationship stretched on.
All this is to say that there are limits even to Gchat’s time-saving, anxiety-curing possibilities. In retrospect, I think I might have acted more quickly if I’d allowed my doubts to build up until I finally had to take action, rather than resolving them over and over again by proxy.
But much as I might like to blame my indecision on Gchat, I can’t do so in good faith. Technology didn’t change me—it just made it a little easier to dodge my own conscience.
“We tend to think of technology as the cause of things, and certainly it is an influence,” Baym told me. “But it’s disempowering to put too much responsibility on technology. It’s like if we all walked around being like, ‘Hammers, man. Hammers are changing our world.’”
A hammer is just a tool, Baym said. It’s good if you use it to build a house, and bad if you use it to hit someone over the head. "Digital communication can enable some great and dangerous stuff," she continued. "The key is to use it wisely."
Yet if in this instance I confused conversation with action, I can name dozens more times when online exchanges have helped me be brave. Often Phoebe and I message each other just before we’re about to do something scary. We give each other the nudge we need to swing from contemplation into deed, to buy a plane ticket to a faraway place or ask for a raise. Knowing that I can depend on a friend’s trusty digital presence helps me forge ahead where I might otherwise stay in a holding pattern.
This is one of the biggest advantages to digital communication, according to Brooke Foucault Welles, a communications professor at Northeastern University who specializes in studying social networks. “People who perceive themselves as having more social support generally adjust quicker to new situations,” she said. “Just being awake to that as a possibility is adaptive.”
I think this is the gift of Gchat, which turns out to be less a wormhole to an anxiety-free future than a kinetic force. And although I still spend a fair amount of time worrying about things that might go wrong, I do it less and less. As Phoebe pointed out in a recent chat, we’ve made each other less paranoid. Now we have a box that each of us can write our doubts and fears into. Sometimes I may have to wait a little while to get a response, as we occasionally manage to tear ourselves away from our computers. But I know that soon the screen will flash a quick blue blink, and I’ll be grateful all over again that my friend is right here, writing back.