Facebook, Twitter, and the Death of Body Language

I am more than willing to admit that from the moment I was taught to text message I have been hooked, and I now send with lightening speed hundreds of text messages each month. I use text messaging to handle quick questions, to give quick updates, and basically to have ‘conversations’ in time frames I control without the demands of face-to-face exchanges.

On the level of quick connection this new technology is wonderful, but I can’t help but believe something is missing. We may be exchanging information, but are we really communicating?

This question is not to suggest a longing for a return to ‘old’ ways of “getting things across.” I am not lamenting technological advances. I’m not trading in my TREO, and I’m not canceling the media package on my phone or reducing the number of messages I sent through that magical device. I am not calling for a technology purge.

I’m simply noting that technology comes with a price, and this price has something of a postmodern twist. By this I mean that tweeting and other high-tech modalities of exchange send information about happenings, attitudes, feelings, and events—but in a way that disconnects life moments from bodies.

We, through our dependency on quick pieces of information, are dispersed and outside our bodies. Life developments become confined to the written word (often in shorthand), and the non-written modes of expression are lost or at least rendered obsolete. No more body language, no more knowing through voice inflection, and no more reading facial expressions.

Bodies become an unnecessary element of our information exchange. We become flexible identities, molded around bits of life events with limited ways to interpret them. The experiences we share and chronicle on these handheld devices speak about the ways in which our bodies occupy time and space, but this is done in ways that allow us to live and share ourselves with countless others without any real awareness of the bodies we carry through the world.

Bodies Tell Stories

Exchanging moments of our day with (faceless) others is meant to fix us in time and space in certain ways: information is more plentiful and quickly digested, but those sharing and those consuming this information are ghosts—phantoms.

Numerous scholars have argued, and I think rightfully so, that the body is a ‘text’. It is both material and metaphor; both a physical marker of our place in human experience and also a ‘sign’ or ‘symbol’ read in ways that define our place in social organization. In short, bodies tell stories; but these stories require something of a physical presence. Our bodies carry something of our historical and cultural memory, and only so much of that memory can be communicated through body-less exchange. Text-messaging, tweeting, and so on provide opportunities for the sharing of large amounts of data, but perhaps without the type of quality control one would anticipate when face-to-face, or when shared in any way that brings the physical body into play. There’s an ability to hide oneself through technology that reduces vulnerability and reserve.

What to do about this? I’m not giving up my messaging, and I’m not suggesting anyone should. Tweet if you must. Update your Facebook profile. There’s no turning back from this technology, the increased speed and ease with which we share information.

However, this ability calls for greater personal control; a new sense of decorum. (Accountability takes on a new meaning, and authenticity in this case demands new modes of measurement.) While using this technology it seems wise to maintain a certain level of discomfort, recognizing that there is something about ourselves that is missing from those exchanges.

It is important to be mindful that we are hiding pieces of our selves, and what we write and what it says about ourselves is really limited and somewhat deceptive. Sharing moment-by-moment bits of information is not the same as nurturing relationships.

fakefakemail@gmail.com'

Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. His most recent book is The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford, 2012).