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.