WE MET AT MUSIC SCHOOL IN VERMONT IN THE 1980s. He was the golden boy, popular and cocksure. I wore thick glasses and played the bassoon. Somehow we formed a friendship, much to the annoyance of his string of romantic conquests and my friends, who disliked him. When August came we parted ways, close but not entirely connected. Two weeks later, I received my first letter from him. It was still broiling hot in Florida as I stood by the mailbox and tore open the envelope. My friend had gone to the trouble to find my address, and, by including his own on the back of the envelope, signaled his expectation that I should write back.
During the next few years we wrote regularly about all kinds of things--the music we were listening to, our parents' willful misunderstanding of our monumental teenage torments. A "pen pal" is what everyone called him. But that childish phrase always bothered me. It sounded too limited and casual, nothing like an expression of the way our letter writing felt. I went through the day filing away little experiences to replay later in a letter to him, and eagerly awaited his responses. Once he wrote "It's here! It's here!" on the back of an envelope containing a letter that was tardier than usual. He understood perfectly my anticipation of his letters because he shared it.
Years passed, and our friendship deepened. We spoke on the telephone occasionally and reunited during one more summer at camp, but most of our communication occurred through letters. After hundreds of small revelations, we made large ones to each other--but only to each other. Our letters were always handwritten. Private. Mediated only by the technology of pen and paper and the postal service.
I don't recount this long-ago exchange to lament the lost era of letter writing. These days, I rarely put pen to paper. Instead, like most of us, I rely on e-mails or text messages, which I simultaneously embrace for their brilliant efficiency and loathe for the conformity they impose.
But I wonder how humans' chosen forms of communication alter our emotional experience of connection. Our feelings for each other haven't changed. We continue to seek validation and happiness and contact with others. We still flush with pleasure when we spy a particular person's e-mail in our in-box. But does the way we communicate with each other alter that experience significantly?
In preparing to write to someone, we prime the emotional pump. We think about how we feel; ideally, we reflect for a moment. The medium of pen and paper encourages this. E-mail and texting and interactions on Facebook encourage more efficient and instantaneous affirmation or rejection of our feelings. They also introduce something new--a form of social anxiety caused by the public nature of so many of our communications. A study published earlier this year in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that the more time and more "friends" people had on Facebook, the more likely they were to agree with the statement that others had better, happier lives than they did, and the less likely they were to believe that life is fair. Researchers have confirmed what many of us already know: Using social networking sites is pleasurable. But the pleasure of publicizing our connections on social networking sites is inextricably linked to the anxiety we experience about the meaning of those connections and what they reveal about the value of our offline lives.
We are living in an age of electronic intimacy. Its hallmark is instantaneous global communication inseparable from an ambient awareness that we are or should be connected to others. Scientists have documented that we experience a dopamine rush when we receive a new e-mail in our in-boxes. The flip side of that rush is the vague social anxiety we feel when we see that we have no new messages. This is new emotional terrain.
Smartphones are the Geiger counters of this electronic intimacy. …