Last year, my sister and I visited Disneyland for the day.
As an expat Aussie living in California, every time a family member visits me, Disneyland is always on the must-do list. As is tradition, we spent the day going through the park and on all the rides together.
One particular ride had a 30-minute wait, and as we stood together in line, I observed a difference in our behavior.
At the time, my sister was 28 and I was 38. This 10-year difference between us signals a generational shift. I am a very late Generation X and she is an early-ish Millennial. Despite this decade of age difference, we are very similar in personality and have always been good friends.
In line waiting for the ride, I noticed that she would take her cell phone out of her bag, write a text, or check something on an app, and then put it away. Within another 2-3 minutes, she would take out her phone again and repeat the process.
As an older Generation X, a part of me was judgmental about this. I could see the behavior as an addiction or at the very least, a habit that wasn’t healthy. Because I didn’t grow up with a cell phone or constant internet access, I saw it as a tool to use sparingly.
But for whatever reason, standing there in that line, I decided to look at it differently.
I asked her what she was doing when she was using her phone. She told me that she was talking to friends through different apps, liking and commenting on status updates, and keeping up on the latest posts of her friends.
Understanding this better, it helped me see that she was actually using a new form of language. It was a form of communication that I’ve come to label as ‘asynchronous’ communication.
In that short 30 minutes, while I had been staring into space she’d had several involved conversations with her friends and also made connections with some acquaintances. She was up to date, she was connected and she was enjoying herself.
For the first time, I saw the value of asynchronicity.
After that day, I started to look at online communication as a tool for connection. It is a form of language that is sent out in short bursts, with each person replying when they are ready. It is also a very different language depending on the app you use. There are layers of nuance to every platform, and ways of behaving that denote whether you are a savvy user or a noob.
When I looked closer at my own connections and friendships, I realized that a majority of my daily and weekly connections were based upon text messages and social media connections. In the past, I had seen these as somehow supplementary to my ‘real life’. Now I started to understand that they were actually a crucial part of it.
As someone who lives on the other side of the world from family and friends, this matters a lot. I have access to the inner lives of those I care about in a way that wasn’t possible 25 years ago.
More than this, I have actually deepened many of those relationships with them through technology. My sister and I will text each other several times a week just to check how things are going. We will share updates on our lives, songs and movies we like, and anything else we find funny. We are great friends thanks to asynchronous communication.
I do something similar with my brothers, my mother and my aunt and my grandmother. I use different platforms for each person and have a different type of connection to each.
Through technology, this asynchronous communication is something that has become a societal norm. But of course, it is something that has been around for a lot longer than we realize.
In the mid 1940s, my grandmother had a penpal who she ‘met’ through a classified ad in the newspaper. They wrote to each other for several years, sending letters by mail, and never meeting in person. At the age of 18, she met her pen pal and they ended up marrying. Her long term penpal was my grandfather.
If it wasn’t for the asynchronous communication of my grandparents, there is a large chance that I wouldn’t have been born.
Today I see asynchronous communication as a bridge. Between two people, between countries, between generations.
All of us are living in this new age of technology-based communication together. The bottom line is that asynchronous communication is a new form of language. We can use it for connection if we choose to see it as valuable.
If we learn to become effective at it, it can be a new way to further our connection and understanding of the world, and those we care about.