I Just Pinged to Say Hello

Posted by Nishant Shah at Nov 30, 2013 08:36 AM |
A host of social networks find us more connected than ever before, but leave us groping for words in the digital space.

Dr. Nishant Shah's article was published in the Indian Express on November 24, 2013.

I am making a list of all the platforms that I use to connect with the large networks that I belong to. Here goes: I use Yahoo! Messenger to talk to my friends in east Asia. Most of my work meetings happen on Skype and Google Hangout. A lot of friendly chatter fills up my Facebook Messenger. Twitter is always available for a little back-chat and bitching. On the phone, I use Viber to make VoIP calls and WhatsApp is the space for unending conversations spread across days. And these are just the spaces for real-time conversation. Across all these platforms, something strange is happening. As I stay connected all the time, I am facing a phenomenon where we have run out of things to say, but not the desire to talk.

I had these three conversations today on three different instant-messaging platforms:

Person 1 (on WhatsApp): Hi.

Me: Hey, good to hear from you. How are you doing?

Person 1: Good.

Me (after considerable silence): So what's up?

Person 1: Nothing.

End of conversation.

Person 2 (On an incoming video call on Skype): Hey, you there?

Me: Yeah. What time is it for you right now?

Person 2: It is 10 at night.

Me: Oh! That is late. How come you are calling me so late?

Person 2: Oh, I saw you online.

Me: Ok….. *eyes raised in question mark*

Person 2: So, that's it. I am going to sleep soon.

Me: Ok…. Er…goodnight.

Person2: Goodnight.

We hang up.

Person 3 (pinging me on Facebook): Hey, you are in the US right now?

Me: Yes. I am attending a conference here.

Person 3: Cool!

Me: Umm… yeah, it is.

Person 3: emoticon of a Facebook 'like'. Have fun. Bye.

Initially I was irritated at the futility of these pings that are bewildering in their lack of content. I dismissed it as one of those things, but I realise that there is a pattern here. Our lives are so particularly open and documented, such minute details of what we do, where we are and who we are with, is now available for the rest of the world to consume, making most of the conversations seeking information, redundant. If you know me on my social media networks, you already know most of the basic things that you would want to know about me. And it goes without saying that no matter how close and connected we are, we are not necessarily in a state where we want to talk all the time. The more distributed our lives are, the more diminished is the need for personal communication.

And yet, the habit or the urge to ping, buzz, DM or chat has not caught up with this interaction deficit. So, we still seem to reach out, using a variety of platforms just to say hello, even when there is nothing to say. I call this the 'Always On' syndrome. We live in a world where being online all the time has become a ubiquitous reality. Even when we are asleep, or busy in a meeting, or just mentally disconnected from the online spaces, our avatars are still awake. They interact with others. And when they feel too lonely, they reach out and send that empty ping — just to confirm that they are not alone. That on the other side of the glowing screen is somebody else who is going to connect back, and to reassure you that we are all together in this state of being alone.

This empty ping has now become a signifier, loaded with meaning. The need for human connection has been distributed, but it does not compensate our need for one-on-one contact. In the early days of the cell phone, when incoming calls were still being charged, the missed call, without any content, was a code between friends and lovers. It had messages about where to meet, when to meet, or sometimes, just that you were missing somebody. The empty ping is the latest avatar of the missed call — in a world where we are always online but not always connected, when we are constantly together, but also spatially and emotionally alone, the ping remains that human touch in the digital space that reassures us that on the other side of that seductive interface and the buzzing gadget, is somebody we can say hello to.