The Age of Never-Ending Internet Chats

What happens when running dialogue with a friend who’s always online replaces solo reflection?

A few years ago, I moved across the country from my friend Phoebe. I missed her a lot—but it helped that I was talking to her on Gchat multiple times a day.

Instant messaging turned out to offer each of us a sort of wormhole through the normal worrywart process. Since Phoebe and I are both writers who spend much of our days in front of a computer, sound advice is always just one click away. We can exchange asides while we’re going about our day-to-day business, resolving minor dilemmas as they unfold. For those with Internet-connected desk jobs, this experience—conducting ongoing chats with close but far-away confidantes—is now commonplace.

In the last month alone, Phoebe and I have proofread and approved multiple professional emails for one another on Gchat and mapped out a strategy for resolving a friend’s travel problem with the determination of Army generals. When a big work project had me pulling 12-hour days, Phoebe sent me links to non-smug yoga videos and reassured me that I probably wouldn’t grow a computer for a head despite all the time I was spending staring at screens. Problems aren’t all we talk about, but they’re definitely a recurring theme. The words “stress,” “worried,” and “scared” have appeared in a quarter of our 400 Gchats over the last 12 months.

There’s no doubt in my mind that our online conversations have been both a blessing and a major time-saver. But once in a while, a new fear tugs at me. Technology has allowed me to immerse myself in a dialogue that never really ends. Is there a downside to giving up time alone with my worried brain?

Louis C.K.’s monologue about the downside of smartphones gets at the crux of the issue. “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something,” he told Conan O’Brien in 2013. “That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person.” In an effort to preserve the lost art of solitary thinking, it’s now de rigueur for people to go on a digital detox by quitting social media or imposing a no-screens rule after 6 p.m. Manoush Zomorodi of WNYC recently hosted a week-long “Bored and Brilliant” challenge aimed at weaning people off their smartphones long enough to let their minds wander. More moneyed sets can opt to shell out hundreds of dollars for upscale, unplugged weekend retreats at monasteries in the Italian countryside.

If constant texting and chatting are eating away at our powers of reflection, it seems possible that the instant gratification of Gchat feedback could atrophy my problem-solving skills. Curious about whether this fear was warranted, I consulted a few experts. Their consensus: I’m probably not missing out on much.

“Introspection can turn into rumination really quickly,” said Nancy Baym, an academic researcher at Microsoft and the author of Personal Connections in the Digital Age. “Your mind can keep running through the same cycle. Communication can help move us out of that.” In other words, Internet chats can help us process our thoughts constructively rather than obsessively.

I’ve certainly seen this dynamic play out in my Gchats with friends—particularly Phoebe, who happens to be one of the most logical people I know. When I was debating leaving our graduate program in English to focus on journalism, for example, she suggested I spend the summer looking for a job and make my decision based on whether I found an appealing alternative. Her recommendation helped me focus on a concrete plan—one that I might not have come up with if left alone with my thoughts.

There’s also something different about our chats than face-to-face friend advice—the kind you might seek over a pint of beer or on a long phone conversation. Talking to Phoebe online is like conversing with Jiminy Cricket, only if he had a funky California fashion sense and a sharper sense of humor. Gchat, and our mostly parallel work schedules, give the illusion that she’s always there.

But the thing about using Gchat to solve offline issues is that you can also trick yourself into thinking you’re making progress when you’re actually doing nothing in real life. I learned this lesson the hard way last summer, while I was dating a smart, kind man whom I was increasingly sure wasn’t right for me. On Gchat, Phoebe and other friends dutifully helped me develop detailed scripts for breaking up. We strategized about the best day of the week to end a relationship (a Friday?) and what I should do afterward (watch Mary J. Blige music videos and make plans to split a scorpion bowl with a friend at a tiki bar). I’d spend these conversations convinced I was fully prepared to do a hard thing. And then I would sign off the computer and keep hesitating.

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.