I’m still not quite sure what made me thank Alexa. I was on vacation in an unfamiliar city and I had just used Amazon’s so-called “smart speaker” to check the weather. But after finding out tomorrow called for rain, sitting alone in an empty, quiet apartment, I made a point to express my gratitude to the inanimate black cylinder lying on the kitchen counter. “No problem,” it intoned jovially in reply.
In retrospect, I had what was a very strange reaction: a little jolt of pleasure. Perhaps it was because I had mostly spent those two weeks alone, but Alexa’s response was close enough to the outline of human communication to elicit a feeling of relief in me. For a moment, I felt a little less lonely.
If I wanted to take my relationship with Alexa to the next level, sharing deeply-held thoughts rather than just thanks, I had options. Secret Keeper, an app for Alexa, lets you whisper a private thought to Alexa, and protect it with a password. Your secret will either be locked away forever, or it can be heard anonymously by others. There are of course worries that come with trusting one’s skeletons to the cloud. But the appeal of the app is obvious—it lets you get something off your chest. It also suggests that sometimes, who listens isn’t important; what matters is simply saying it out loud.
Using technology as a kind of lockbox for what is private is not new. First there were diaries with locks, or messages written onto paper and then stuffed into bottles cast into the ocean. In each there was a kind of yearning to be heard, without suffering the social consequences of disclosure. It’s as if what we want isn’t a real connection, but the release of an imagined perfect one. If anything, digital technologies have made that impulse more ubiquitous. Apps like Whisper, and the popular site Postsecret, both of which let you post confessions anonymously, add publicity to the mix, letting an unknown audience become a blank repository for our secrets.
Even our public-facing or friend-facing social networks are peppered with tweets or Facebook updates with no likes and no responses. These are slightly different from simply depositing a thought into the abyss; we know someone will likely see it. But the orphaned post is often one written more for the writer than the reader. Even if no one responds, it solidifies some vague thought or feeling so we can make sense of it for ourselves.
It is a particularly acute phenomenon on small platforms likely not long for this world. Peach, for example, experienced a brief week or two of hype, and then fell off most people’s radars. Stragglers remain, however, and at least in my limited friend list, are often found typing out ideas or sharing gifs that aren’t really aimed at anyone in particular—a fact made all the more strange by the fact that Peach’s cozy aesthetics and tiny user-base tend to invite emotional, confessional posting. The private anxieties and yearnings of people I barely know are splashed out onto the app’s pastel background, frequently eliciting no reaction at all. Yet people continue to post—no doubt because the fact that others are doing the same means the possibility of interaction still looms—but also because the mere fact of expressing a thought has its own purpose.
The rhetoric around social networks has always been, depending on your proclivities, either about connection and socialization, or less charitably, narcissism and presenting a falsely idealized version of yourself to the world. But perhaps it isn’t practical communication or an idealized self that drives much of what we do online as much as it is the abstract idea of the unsullied connection. So much of human communication is wrapped up this desire: our inarticulate, inevitably futile wish to have another person understand us exactly as we understand ourselves. Alas, that person doesn’t exist. The aching chasm between one person and another is exactly what generates so much misunderstanding, but also drives everything from making art to talking over coffee for hours, the very gap itself making those rare moments of connection feel like such ecstatic relief. What we want is to be seen in our entirety, and we are always striving to inch closer to that impossible goal.
Perhaps, then, that Instagram shot or confessional tweet isn’t always meant to evoke some mythical, pretend version of ourselves, but instead seeks to invoke the imagined perfect audience—the non-existent people who will see us exactly as we want to be seen. We are not curating an ideal self, but rather, an ideal Other, a fantasy in which our struggle to become ourselves is met with the utmost empathy.
It also may explain why empty social networks or app that securely tuck away our thoughts are unexpectedly such ideal venues for catharsis. After all, only where no-one truly listens can we ever be perfectly heard. What we want is mutuality—and if that can’t exist, then just the outline of it tides us over for just a little longer.
There is inevitably an alluring, risky seductiveness to that empty box online or the tiny black obelisk on a kitchen counter. Sometimes a chirpy response from a digital assistant is just what you need. At other times it is a too-easy substitute for something a little more complex or less predictable than the welcoming blankness of the void. Like everything, the key is balance, a tricky concept that is as subjective as it is dependent upon context. Only we ourselves will know whether expressing ideas into the abyss is good for us, or if we need the pushback of a plain-spoken friend.
But what digital technologies do best, to our benefit and detriment, is to act as a canvas for our desires. The promise of the democratizing effect of digital was always predicated on blank spaces waiting to be inscribed upon and seen by others so that, in painting out our thoughts and feelings, we make sense of ourselves. True, typing or screaming into the void can evoke a certain sense of futility, even nihilism. Carried underneath, however, is something deeply human—a wish to be seen, to be heard, to be apprehended as nothing less than who we imagine ourselves to be.
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