Technology did not destroy me. It saved me.
In mid-July of 2013, I received the text message that saved my life.
I was annoyed. It was the middle of the night and the text jarred me from bed. It was from my friend Carrie and her custom text tone was the sound of a barking dog, a joke both too dirty and too stupid to be funny outside my college friends group. The text, about seeing Ryan Reynolds at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, was sent to me and two mutual friends. Not a Reynolds fan, I ignored it. When I woke up, I had 53 unread messages. What started as a celebrity sighting had expanded into a full conversation about celebrity worship, L.A. culture, materialism, corporate pollution, global warming, and the growing incompetence of American politicians.
These were the sort of talks I missed sorely.
We had such discussions throughout college. They were always rooted in a naïve sense that anything we said mattered, that our generation could somehow change the world—no save the world—and early debates on the best means to do so would become history that demanded preservation.
The conversation over our iPhones was less adolescent, the points being made more realistic and, in this way, more cynical. We knew we would change nothing but the underlying feeling was the same. We were sincerely striving to learn from each other, to better articulate fears and frustrations through the act of conversation. It made me miss the person I was at 21, the girl who recited lines from Mrs. Dalloway and Angels in America when drunk and was sure the friendships solidified or formed during these hazy late night epiphanies would be lifelong.
Such relationships seemed, after college, unobtainable. Since the 1950s, sociologists have pointed to three categories necessary to forming intimate friendships: proximity, repeated unplanned interactions, and an environment that encourages vulnerability. University is an environment that meets all three categories. It’s a hard atmosphere to reproduce. When I moved to Chicago, I struggled to form intimate friendships. This would have been difficult at any point, but I was going through a prolonged bout of clinical depression.
The issues fueling my unhappiness were typical. I made a series of poor decisions regarding my romantic life. I put on weight. Halfway through graduate school, I realized I was uncertain about my career path but remained enrolled due to a gnawing sense of obligation and an uncertainty over what else to do with an English degree from a State school. If not for preexisting issues with mental health, I might have skated through the slump unscathed. But as a person inclined toward depression, I took the setbacks hard. There was a moment when, trying to reassure myself the following year would be better, I realized I was not sure I wanted a next year. An easy exit, an early exit, seemed increasingly enticing.
If it had not been for that text message, I do not know if I would have survived.
Vivian Gornick, in her own take on Montaigne’s “Of Friendship,” wonders if the romantic way Montaigne wrote of his relationship with Estienne de La Boétie stemmed from the fact marriages at the time were of convenience. Back then, the part of the brain that craved infatuation was satiated through passionate friendships rather than romances. Montaigne speaks of growing through a friend, seeing one’s best qualities nurtured by another. Such transformative relationships have been, for much of modern American culture, romantic. I feel Montaigne’s brand of friendships is having a renaissance among millennials. This may be due to changing attitudes about marriage. With more people remaining single, the emotional intimacy once confined to spousal relationships blossoms in friendships.
Millennials marry older and we marry less. A recent Pew Institute Report implies that not only is the average age of the first marriage growing, more 20-somethings than ever remain romantically unattached. About 25% of my age group will likely never marry. Such research is unsurprising. My friends and I are not the marrying kind. This does not necessarily mean we’re against marriage. Some of us have married or are at least in serious relationships. Not-the-marrying-kind speaks to a certain attitude, how romantic love is or is not prioritized. The idea of a long-term partner is simply not a vital component of a successful future. If any one of us were to rank goals in order of importance, falling in love would be somewhere between “learning to crochet” and “becoming fluent in Spanish.” Love is nice, but unnecessary. We have one another for inspiration, growth, and emotional support.
Gornick’s essay is the story of a friendship dissolving. She wonders how Montaigne’s relationship with La Boétie may have changed had the latter not died young. Would they have remained as intimately, intensely close? Perhaps not. People lose touch. An unfortunate fact of life is that career, family, and other obligations sometimes get in the way of longstanding friendships. Yet, I hold out hope the relationships I formed in college will become lifelong bonds.
Sociologist Barry Wellman has consistently challenged the assumption that we’re becoming increasingly antisocial due to new technologies. The dawn of the Internet and the invention of smart phones, texting, and social media have streamlined conversation, making it easier than ever to converse. We’ve shifted, Wellman states, from place-based to people-based communities. Technology does not create communities but it certainly enhances existing social structures. It allows friends to, from a distance, grow together. My parents rarely converse with the friends who comprised their wedding party and talk maybe twice a year to people they once considered vital to their emotional well-being. Such a fate seems unlikely for me.
Our iPhone group chat thread became a haven. It has been going strong for two years now.
We sometimes exchange crude comments and rehash old jokes from college. Other times, conversations are deeper. We share triumphs, congratulating Jon on his two-year anniversary with his boyfriend, celebrating one of Carrie’s films being accepted into the Rome International Film Festival. We support one another through hardships, bemoaning struggles with anxiety, body dysmorphia, and depression.
In the summer of 2013, this was the sort of support I needed but found hard to come by in a city where I felt uncomfortable and during a time in my life when I was at my worst. I taught Writing and Rhetoric then at a private art school. When my younger students, fancying themselves non-conforming intellectual artists, made well-meaning but misguided statements about how technology is ruining the way we communicate I found it hard to stay silent.
Technology did not destroy me. It saved me.
When I left Chicago, I moved to Los Angeles. Carrie lives in a cute two-bedroom apartment in the heart of West Hollywood. She was not the only factor in my decision to move, but was certainly an important one. This is something people older than me fail to understand. She’s just a friend, after all, how important can she really be? The fact is, Carrie is vital to me. Without her, and all my group chat friends, I might not have had a future at all.
Erin Wisti is a writer, avid reader, coffee drinker, and cat lover who lives and works in Los Angeles. Her essays have previously appeared in The Butter, Bayou Magazine, Ampersand Review, Chicago Literati, and other places. You can follow her on Twitter at @ErinWisti.