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Remotely Present

Opinion | November 23, 2015

My parents love to talk about the “good old days.” Whenever they recount their glorious college experiences, I think about how the way they interacted with the world around them differs from how I do now; though their stories may be altered from overuse or selective memory, they are useful as a point of comparison. A main difference between our experiences is my access to technology that allows me to be particularly tuned in to connections both here at school and elsewhere, but that doesn’t allow me to fully be away—our online sharing keeps us close and informed.

My parents’ generation grew up without smartphones and laptops, and those who went to college did not have an extensive electronic connection to the rest of the world. Instead of toiling through a dramatic search process, my dad said that he never visited or even really researched his college before attending. It seems as though he just slipped away from home and into the unknown. In college, my parents called home on payphones in the lobbies of their dorms and would often go weeks without checking in with their families. They talk about making plans to meet someone in the dining hall and then actually meeting them there at the appointed time. Even more astonishing, they have regaled me with legends of arriving at the dining hall alone for dinner and then finding people to sit with. I get the impression from my parents that college was a rich landscape full of students looking up and seeing who was around and what was going on without phones to connect them elsewhere.

When my parents left home for school, it was more of a total departure from their old lives. It was their time to move away to foster new relationships and interests separate from the life they left behind. This conjures up a romantic idea of going away to find oneself, on one’s own without constant influences from back home or anywhere else. Conversely, I am never truly disconnected. Yes, there is physical separation from my hometown and family members, but I know that there are open avenues of communication through which photos and life updates flow constantly. The way I share my life allows me to be loosely connected to a number of people through social media, but it makes me disconnected from the opportunity to be fully away.

Social media has infiltrated relationship dynamics in both college and non-college settings. Conversations at social events become recaps of information that has already been shared remotely through social media platforms. We facilitate connections, but in a less spontaneous way than meeting people in the “good old days” that I have heard so much about—days when dinner plans didn’t have to be premeditated and personal accomplishments were not touted on Facebook.

I know that my family members keep up with me on social media, and I am glad that they do so that they can get a glimpse into my life and I into theirs. There is a feeling of community from afar because I know that my parents and aunts and uncles and cousins are interested in my life and I can be interested in theirs too without hours of phone calls and writing letters. Our ability to maintain these familial connections even after we leave home seems to be normal, and often expected. Even though my family is not especially tech-savvy, we have managed to maintain a group text thread, and even a larger Facebook chat—including second cousins—that gets sporadic use throughout the year.

What connections and experiences have we missed because of our power to access the world and what have we gained? I know that my web of family and friends and acquaintances is ever-present through their online postings, which are sometimes more than I can handle. As I scroll through photos of people who seem to be some brand of Internet celebrity or cynical comedian, I am pulled away from my own life at school, from studies, and from relationships with friends and professors. It is easy to be scattered, spreading my attention between immediate sights and textures and the possibility of the entire world in my hands for the looking.

I believe that the experiences that I have missed out on have been those of “getting lost.” I am thankful for my access to technology that allows me to be in constant contact with people that I care about, but often these avenues of communication are over-saturated. There is a sense of watchfulness among peers and family that is fun and helpful to a certain extent, but also stifling. The constant updates on what other people are doing that social media provides leaves less space for exploration and mistakes while away at college. A lot has changed since my parents attended college, but perhaps the need of college students to be fully away from home has not. I find myself away from home, wading through swaths of information about people on campus, loved ones elsewhere, and news from every continent, but never fully here either. Many people talk of the “Tufts Bubble,” but I feel as though my Tufts bubble has been punctured by ever-flowing streams of information to the outside world. While I will not resist technology that helps me connect, I believe it is important to realize when our use of social media pulls us away from an experience or a place. I don’t want to be so distracted by virtual sharing that I am neither here at school nor away, but somewhere in an unfulfilling middle ground.

We partake in our modern ritual of sharing and viewing information about each other because it helps us stay connected to the people we care about and to important information, and as college students this means we can be globally minded and aware without ever leaving campus. This means that our ties to others far away will be maintained at least virtually, that we can see what they are doing on their summer vacation even if we have not spoken to them on the phone in years, and that we will never have to look up in Dewick because we know exactly where our friends are sitting. This also means that we do not have the space to grow and explore without others watching our moves. Our generation is one that has access to the whole world and all of our people in it, but not one that has access to a complete departure.