Widgets Magazine


I Have Two Heads: Internet (Dis)connection

A week ago, I had an experience that raised fresh questions for me about the digitally interconnected nature of the Stanford campus. One of my classes required some collaboration for a group project, and the night before an assignment was due, one of my peers proposed that we all meet to discuss logistics — but via Gchat, not in person.

Hold on, what ever happened to conversing face-to-face? Feeling almost as odd as if I were shuffling into a room of strangers, I logged online and joined the chat session. The dialogue proceeded in a remarkably relaxed manner for people who lacked the benefit of formal introductions, but as we were wrapping up, one of the group members typed, “Wait, do any of you know who each other is? In real life, I mean?”

Cue the sudden awkwardness. Two of us had at least met, but the other two or three were complete strangers. What was more, our class was a large lecture, which made it unlikely that any of us would even recognize each other should that serendipitous chance arise. The moment highlighted the peculiarity of our interaction: even though we were all Stanford students, our dialogue had functioned on the same plane as an anonymous Internet chat room. My roommate laughed when I told her about the incident: “How hard can it be to meet up? You go to the same school!”

Indeed we do, but we also go to a school in which an intensely wired-in culture is taken for granted. Call it the flip side of being in the heart of Silicon Valley, but at Stanford, it can become all too easy to forget where the line lies between knowing each other authentically, in person, and knowing each other only via a network. After all, I go through each day plugged into my iPhone, laptop, Facebook, both my blog and those of other people and various email accounts — as I know is true for almost all of my friends. I, like the majority of us, live in a fast-paced technological hub in which I know other people by their digital selves and am busily producing the kind of digital persona that I myself would like to project.

When I step away from Stanford, much of this digital preoccupation falls away. Maybe it’s the simple fact of leaving the Bay Area air behind, but I check my smartphone and email less. I am online less often. And, most strikingly of all, I never fail to be amazed by how wonderful it is to see longtime friends in person, instead of the texting, instant messaging and Skype interactions that characterize our long-distance relationships. Yet, in the rhythm of campus life, I suspect that this truth is often lost on me and my Stanford peers. We can often fail to take advantage of the opportunities for real interaction that lie all around us.

This strikes me as contrary to one of the selling points that Stanford claims: the opportunity to meet, converse and network with other brilliant students and faculty. The best part of Stanford, they say, is the people — with which I’ve come to wholeheartedly agree. I still recall one high school college advisor, who himself had gone to Stanford, telling me that his best memories from his undergraduate years involved late nights in the hallways discussing overarching life questions with his friends. Now, in the 21st century, I’ve had many intense Stanford conversations of my own — so how strange is it that a fair number of them, like my recent group project collaboration, have taken place online rather than face-to-face?

Because logging on to a network makes it easier to instantly access the people we want to talk to. Ever since my freshman year, when many of my friends were concentrated in the same dorm, the people I know at Stanford have become more physically dispersed, and in many cases, technology is what ends up bridging the gap. Dropping a quick email or text can maintain the illusion of being in constant conversation. Plus, high-tech communication solutions bring the added bonus of being able to create and project the exact voice that we want to exhibit — which gives our generation a skewed sense of possessing the freedom to be whoever we want to be. Doesn’t this, in itself, fit right into the self-inventing mindset of being a Stanford student?

In a way, it’s reassuring that the wired-in nature of our campus allows us to stay in touch despite busy schedules, but I wonder about the extent to which we’re allowing digital interchange to become a substitute for real-life interaction. I have friends with whom I can recognize an entirely different dynamic functioning when we talk via text message and when we talk in person. Feeling this gap can be surprising, if not downright unsettling. For Pete’s sake, we do go to the same school — and unplugging ourselves, if only to take a walk across campus, can be a bigger boon to a relationship than we might think.


Rachel’s sending out a Doodle to arrange an in-person get-together. If you want a link to the website, email her at rkolb@stanford.edu.