IN THE FACE of mounting evidence that social media is ruining everything, I want to point out one of the few things it’s actually making better: long-distance relationships. And it’s making them better for precisely the same reasons that makes it so corruptible — it’s free, easy to use, and virtually everywhere.
I love my mom and I love Texas, where my parents live, but I was never likely to move back there after leaving for college; career, partners, life were taking me other places. And then, when I was in my late 20s and living in Boston, my then-boyfriend, now-husband asked me how I felt about moving to London for a few years. Who wouldn’t want to move to London? I said. That was more than 10 years ago.
When we first moved here, the pressure of maintaining relationships with our families and friends was light, probably because everyone kind of thought we’d move back at some point. But then we didn’t. And we went and had children, too (English children who are being taught in school that “ar” is pronounced “ah,” “as if at the doctor’s”). This meant that we needed to be better about keeping our relationships with our families current, if only so that our families could better monitor our children’s developing accents. Thank goodness, then, for the timely intrusion of Big Tech.
In the last five years, our long-distance relationships have been stitched together from all this public and private data. It started quietly — my Mom and I began to chat over Facebook messenger because it was free. Now I talk to her more than I did when we lived in the same country, about little things (their leaky kitchen faucet), big things (the medical history of all the women in my family), random things (that one time my uncle brought home a pony). She sends me pictures from Target or of her dogs, I send her pictures of the cat or the kids.
It’s not just with my parents; my entire family is held together by these invisible wires, each new one added when it seemed useful. My husband’s family — brother, sister, their spouses and children, and his father and stepmother — has a group iMessenger chat we use daily. Right now, we’re sharing a lot of comic poetry, largely because my brother-in-law is a fan. WhatsApp is for quick calls; we Facetime or Skype on the weekends when we want to show each other what we’re seeing: a country walk, a vintage car fair, Lego contraptions my kids make, messy houses (confession: mine). When I post on Instagram or Facebook, my sister-in-law and step-mother-in-law usually comment. In fact, they’ll probably see this article because I will likely share it. I can see what they’re posting, too, or what my nieces, who are in their early 20s, are sharing on “Insta.” (They use a lot more filters and stickers and gifs than I do.)
LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIPS haven’t been studied much, but the researchers I spoke to agree that tech has made all kinds of connections easier. That’s not surprising — we now have myriad ways to share our lives with each other under conditions that were previously impossible, says Dr. Laura Stafford, director of the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University and the author of one of the few academic examinations of long-distance relationships, “Maintaining Long-Distance and Cross-Residential Relationships.”
The very fact that digital communication is free, instant, and high-quality gives us the chance to share over long distances the thousands of nothing moments which are so critical to human relationships: “My son and his wife, they’ll both be on Skype or Facetime for hours, doing nothing — one is studying and the other is cooking,” Stafford says.
That tech can bind us together in meaningful relationships over vast distances is extremely important in this era of unprecedented migration. More than half of all Americans aged 25 and over have moved out of their state of birth. Others, like me, have migrated even farther: In 2016, the US State Department estimated that around 9 million US citizens live abroad. Worldwide, according to the Legatum Institute, 258 million people are living outside the country of their birth — about one in 30 people — and many of them not entirely by choice.
But in the digital age, the very nature of how we emotionally connect is also evolving, and that is in part the result of the technology itself. Widespread use of social media and tech-mediated communication has trained us to communicate through the shorthand offered by text, image, and video. Increasingly, for many of us, an occasional text conversation is satisfying enough. Concurrently, more of us are opting out of traditional relationship pathways.
In other words, tech played a role in the expansion of the definition of what a “real relationship” is, says Dr. Galena Rhoades, a clinical psychologist who studies relationships. Younger generations — those who are most comfortable in the digital realm — may no longer need to date, get married, and have kids; for them, “non-traditional” or even solely Internet-based connections may fulfill their need for human connection.
Of course, relationships are complex. Video chat, Instagram, and the Facebook portal can augment contact, but other aspects, such as instrumental support — making dinner, offering to babysit — aren’t substantively affected by modern tech. “Grandparents can read a story to a child over Facetime or Skype, but the grandparent still can’t go fishing with the kid,” Stafford says. Maybe. You might not be able to reach over and bait the hook, but you can still watch — remote fishing is better than no fishing at all.
THERE ARE SOME very solid arguments against social media, bolstered by the valid concern that the possibility of perpetual connection is preventing us from connecting with the people right in front of us. But one of the things that Stafford noted in her book is that in the 1920s, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd prophesied that the telephone would weaken friendship ties — it would make us lazy, and put an end to face-to-face meetings. It didn’t, of course. Despite our terror over it, technology is never as good nor as bad, as useful nor as damaging as we think it’ll be.
That said, I am uneasy about many aspects of Big Tech, most specifically, that the cost of Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, Instagram — the “free” things I use all the time — is my personal data. (Although all they’ve managed to detect so far is that I like to shop for clothes.) I’m also living in anticipatory terror over the days when my children’s interactions on social media are outside my control.
But this is a golden age of communication, especially for the many of us living far away from the people we love. Without this technology, these tiny portals that link us together, my life in another country wouldn’t be possible. We need social media and communication tech, we need it to be free and seamless. Sometimes, it’s the only tether we have.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer living in London.