I ventured out to a Dupont Circle bar last Saturday night to see how the other half lives. Those young, single, city-dwelling folks who don't have three kids, a carpool, or daily forays to the supermarket. I couldn't believe the amount of texting and E-mailing going on after midnight. Who are these people contacting? I thought. And why aren't they hanging out with them instead of the friends they came with? As Jerry Seinfeld might say, "What's the deal with all the texting?"
I ask Kathleen Bogle, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University in Philadelphia, to satisfy my curiosity. "Texting is the new smoking; there's no question about it," she says. "In a bar setting where people used to have a cigarette when they weren't engaged at the moment, they now pull out a cellphone and tap away."
But at 2 a.m.? "Late-night texts are often a kind of booty call," she says, "for those looking to hook up with a previous partner." Bogle interviewed college students and recent college graduates for a book published last year called Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus.
I noticed a lot of people texting while standing in line at the bathroom—almost as if they needed to look occupied. "There's a kind of insecurity thing that goes on if no one is talking to you at the moment," Bogle explains. "Women, in particular, don't want to look like they're on their own. It's a way to feel less self-conscious." And show people that you're not a loser and really do have friends.
Still, I wonder why we can't just be in the moment, taking time to watch all those people posing for silly cellphone pics? Or perhaps we can even make eye contact or strike up a conversation with a stranger. Forget about strangers, Bogle tells me: Young people have a hard time just staying engaged with the friends they came with. "We've moved away from a dating culture where plans were made days in advance," she says. "Now everything is spur of the moment, since technology allows people to make multiple plans for the night with various groups of friends." If the first pack proves less than stimulating, you can always move on to a more entertaining bunch. And if that doesn't work out, there's always the after-hours hookup.
It's a grass-is-always-greener-with-someone-who's-not-there mentality. And, Bogle adds, it's pretty darn insulting to the people you're hanging with—though they're probably texting their alternatives too. What it's really all about, though, is what Bogle calls "impression management"—what kind of image we're giving off to others. We want others to think we're in high demand with a constantly buzzing cellphone. Instead of being astute observers, she says, we're thinking about others observing us.
Perhaps some of us have taken the celebrity culture to heart and act as if we're the center of everyone's attention, the star of our own reality show. How else to explain the need to Twitter between texts? Bogle says she's been tempted to give up on Facebook since she got a recent update about a friend's pimple, complete with attached photo. "What makes these people think someone cares about every moment of their lives?" she says. "It's sort of narcissistic in a way, and I've certainly heard many of my students say they're getting tired of it."
Of course, in order for the flow of text messages to wane, we'd have to get tired not just of receiving them but also of sending out our own missives. Then, I'm hoping, we can go back to real conversations and people-watching—even if we still can't light up.