Ghosting and Digital Culture

Go ahead and add ghosting to the pile of social ills that have emerged in the era of the smartphone. Moving more conversations to digital formats, constant connectivity and the fact that we routinely interact with robots is changing our mores. Plenty of research has begun to look at how technology is affecting our attention spans, precious little is looking at how human-bot interaction is affecting human-human relationships.

What is ghosting?

For the sake of discussion let’s use a broad definition:

Abruptly cutting off communication and refusing to answer messages from another party without giving a minimal amount of closure, whether it be a professional or personal relationship.

Some examples:

  1. A salesperson spends weeks discussing a project with a potential client. At some point the client begins to ignore all emails and attempts at contact without requesting that the salesperson cease contacting them. This is ghosting.
  2. Someone goes out on a few dates with another person and simply decides to stop responding to messages instead of telling that person they’re no longer interested in pursuing a relationship. This is also ghosting.
  3. Long-time friends get together after not seeing each other for years, their outing ends up being awkward and neither side messages the other afterwards. This isn’t ghosting, since there weren’t any ignored messages.

Humans need closure

I’m skeptical of Western psychology’s willingness to indulge narratives and an almost unquestioned assumption that people can just talk through issues. This feeling of closure isn’t what I’m getting at.

Closure is a ritual marking the end of an event. The angst of liminality jolts us into who we are, but were it not temporary the stress of a liminal phase would ultimately be debilitating. That’s why cultures create rituals to mark the end of a liminal period and sanctify the transition. That’s closure.

Modern WASP culture has been steadily working to devalue rituals and inadvertently rob people of closure. Funerals that serve as a real ritual to bring closure are too morbid for polite company these days. Seeing an unembalmed dead body lowered into the earth or swallowed by the crematory fire is a rarity for a WASP. Instead, a prim and proper funeral has a nice picture and some flowers. I suspect this doesn’t give mourners the deep closure they seek.

Rituals tend to persist long after they ceases to have any real meaning. High School Graduation used to mean something in the US and served as the true end of the liminal phase of childhood. We’ve kept the pomp and circumstance, yet helicopter parents rob newly minted ‘adults’ of any real autonomy.

Marriage is another increasingly meaningless ritual. In my social circle, most couples live together long before their wedding day, and barring a costly bash, an outside observer would be hard pressed to find what had actually changed after the ritual. The ceremony itself seems to have little, if any, impact on whether the couple stays together or not.

Humans crave rituals and closure. We cycle through liminal phases and get lost without some definite end to each period of uncertainty. Sapping rituals of their power to bring closure does a great disservice to society and increases our overall background stress level.

Daily closure is important, too

Modernity is chipping away at less dramatic closure rituals in our day-to-day lives. The always-on, always-connected nature of smartphones means that the workday doesn’t have clear boundaries. In fact, nothing really has a clear boundary. I don’t mean this in some sort of Luddite pean to pre-modernity, rather it’s worth exploring how technology is changing us.

Twenty years ago it would have been improbable to have a conversation with someone outside of your household in the middle of night. You simply wouldn’t call someone up in the middle of the night on the off chance they weren’t sleeping. Bedtime meant closure, and it was hard for this ritual to be violated by realtime information from outside (I’m not counting I Love Lucy reruns, although even this had to be done quietly enough to not wake up anybody else). If I can’t sleep today, I hop on my phone and start chatting, going through reddit and partaking of the 24-7 world. The examples are myriad. Before the smartphone, I never would have responded to a coworker’s question while taking a shit.

Connectivity is great, and I love being able to talk to family and friends half a world away. I do wonder, though, if always-on connectivity is eroding daily closure rituals. When I leave the office, I know I’m not truly done with my day. The threshold of ‘emergency’ that would rope me back in is low. Five minutes of insomnia is all it takes to break the sacred silence of the night and plug into the outside world.

We no longer expect or value closure

It’s easy not to feel obliged to give someone closure, to say that we’re ending a relationship, because we’ve come to not expect it ourselves. In the rare case of actually being given real closure, it seems abrupt and cruel. We no longer value rejection as a frank telling that it’s time to move on.

Technology makes it easier to avoid uncomfortable conversations

There’s something to be said for written communication. I value being able to take my time and express my thoughts clearly. There are times when this is no substitute for the complexity of human emotions in a face to face conversation.

Each step forward in technology has made it a bit easier to avoid having difficult conversations in person. As more emotionally charged communication has moved to chat apps, the skill of having these conversations in person has atrophied.

Because technology makes it easier to avoid unpleasant conversations, people turn to technology even more, which makes it all the harder to have these conversations in the first place. At some point it becomes easier to skip the conversation altogether rather than bring up something unpleasant.

We no longer talk to just humans

Discussions about whether we have less empathy when debating someone on social media or in real life are old news. Many things people say online, especially under the cloak of anonymity, would never be uttered by that same person at the dinner table. The newer questions is how having meaningful linguistic interaction with non-humans is affecting us.

Even when I use a programming language that is modeled on human language, say AppleScript, there’s no mistaking that I’m using stilted human expressions to tell a machine what to do. When I talk to Siri, the line gets blurry. When I talk to chatbots that handle customer service tasks, it’s often not obvious whether I’m talking to a human or not. Google Duo is only going to make this worse.

What are my ethical obligations when speaking to a robot? Should I say please when talking to Siri or Google Duo? Why does BofA give their in-app bot, Erica, a human name? When I’m done with Erica do I need to say thanks and goodbye or can I just close the app?

This is less asinine than it might seem at first glance. Most marketing materials you get are from a hybrid human-machine effort. Some companies make no effort to mask that you got a mass email with your name plucked in. I respect that and feel no compulsion to politely decline their offer. Other companies go to great lengths to make it look like an actual human wrote a personalized note. Most of us in the tech scene know that these are also mass produced and also feel no need to respond.

With more advanced companies, your first email or two may very well never be seen by a human. Even if you use all the niceties of human language, bots can handle a wide range of simple responses and flag complex emails for human support staff. My theory is that we know this instinctively and feel no need to tell a bot that we’ve changed our minds. This is bleeding over into our interactions with humans.

Setting boundaries

Boundaries are important for psychological health. Create a simple ritual of pulling the plug on the wifi every evening. Make family dinner a sacred space without phones. It doesn’t actually matter what you do, as long as you figure out some ritual that gives a daily dose of closure.

The ethics of bots

I think bots have their place. If I can resolve something in thirty seconds rather than waiting on hold for an hour, fine. I’m not even against mass emails and have purposefully signed up for plenty of them because I want to hear about products from companies I like.

My quibble is with labelling. Tell me that I’m talking to a bot and do something to de-humanize the experience. Give the bot a non-human name and Jetsons style avatar. Don’t creepily personalize mass emails.

Say no

Most importantly, say when you’re done with a relationship. Did you talk to human and get a price sheet? You were under no obligation to buy anything, thank the salesperson for their time and let them know you’re no longer in the market. Did you decide someone wasn’t right for you even though the date went ok. Great, it’s better to figure that out now; just tell them.

The more I look at my own life, it’s mind boggling how often I try to avoid saying no. Rather than saying that I don’t want to meet someone for a drink, I come up with elaborate stories of my cat having the flu. It’s a nasty habit. So it goes. I’m slowly learning to politely, but firmly, say no. That’s right speech, after all.