Saturday, April 3, 2010

The crinkle on your nose

What bothers me increasingly about the Internet is my ever-increasing impatience. 

There's a promise of an unending stream of stories to be read, and I find myself being occupied by that promise rather than the story at hand. Attention deficit is multiplied by a factor of the number of windows open and spurred on by the insistent pop-us and tantalizing hooks which every story seems to have.

And hooks that tempt you to bite the story are essential, if you want to be read, in a world where every click opens an interesting tale. I unfortunately don't possess that skill.

I suck at flash fiction. I have tried writing it, but I don't have the succint grace that it demands. Rather, my mode of writing would have fit into the days when you didn't need to write an opening paragraph with 10 action verbs to get some response. Or a three word exclamation of a sentence that  is worthy of a retweet.

Maybe it is like a friend said: If you cannot tell me your idea in a 100 pages, I don't want to read your book. And what the world seems to say: If you cannot tell me your idea in 140 characters, I don't want to hear it.

What then is the nature of relationships built on knowing someone when their thoughts and ideas have to fit into the tyranny of 140 characters? How well do you know someone through endless streams of updates on what quizzes they took or cryptic mood messages that's meant as a filler in a conversation, not the conversation itself. 

In other words, what kind of a bond do you create through staccato conversations and sporadic updates?

My relationships with people are different now. Rather, they fall neatly into two categories, I think. One is the people I have known through flesh and blood. I have seen the crinkle on their nose and the way they smile and how they react.

The other is a mental persona I have of people. Say, an avatar that takes shape inside my head.

He's the monosyllabic guy who would sit in a corner and keep looking at me through his glasses and I would wonder what he is thinking. He is the one who would let me speak first and respond later, so that he always knows when I am making a fool of myself. She is the one who would tell me about her life such that I feel I have seen the crinkle on her nose and I am probably just a username in her head. He is the eternal flirt whose every sentence has to have another import. He is the humourist -- I have to be on the lookout for a joke in the third line.

Probably, these are the same thoughts I would have if I met them, but I have never met them, and in all probability will never meet them. I know them as a username and with their photographs online I have an idea of them, an image built of conversations, 55 lines stored in my chat history.

From the time I started chatting with strangers in a platform created by Channel V some 10 years ago, I have come a long way. I now talk to more strangers than I do to people I know. Yet, with some strangers, there is a relationship. Sometimes it is an instant connect or sometimes there's a nagging discomfort that I can never shrug off.

So what is this instinct that comes to guide me in these virtual relationships? 

When I was recently chatting with someone, he thought I was upset over something he said. "Terse" reply was the word he used to describe my response. Unless butteressed by a smiley, the reply sounded terse, he said. I could have been reaching out for a cup of  coffee with one hand and could have typed with two fingers, but that pause and brief response sent a signal full of information. And I have to punctuate it with an emoticon, italics or a bolded typeface, or snarky words to simulate a crinkled nose. 

There's a different language I need to master, which has its own nuances and subtexts and the instinct continues to be ineffable and changes with every interaction.

Nowadays, one chat conversation is all it takes to make people whole in my head. What does that mean for my real world relationships? Can I form bonds with just 55 lines of conversation? Would I be compelled to dig deeper over mugs of steaming coffee or would I just add them on Twitter?

(After having begun writng this, I think the first part of my piece here is similar to is Google making us stupid by Nicholas Carr. V. Interesting piece, and a must read. )

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