Opinion: Relationship rules changing

January 27, 2013


You are missing the point.

Or at least, you are if you’re one of the bazillion people following the Manti Te’o story, dutifully trying to determine whether the Notre Dame football star was the victim or the perpetrator of a bizarre hoax. Granted, the story is irresistible as one of those 15-minutes-of-fame-kitten-stuck-in-the-well fables without which people who gather around the water cooler wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

Te’o, a Heisman Trophy runner-up, had generated an outpouring of sympathy after he played through pain, turning in a gritty performance that keyed his team to an upset win, right after learning that his girlfriend and grandmother had died within hours of each other. The grandmother was real. But as Deadspin, a sports website, soon discovered, the girlfriend was not.

Te’o, it turned out, had never met Lennay Kekua. He’d seen pictures of a woman, he’d spoken to what he thought was a woman by phone and corresponded with someone online. The “relationship” was virtual. Te’o says now that he was as surprised as anyone to learn Kekua did not exist. He was, he says, the victim of a hoax by an acquaintance, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. So now, people are debating whether Te’o duped us or was duped himself.

And missing a more fascinating question. What does it say that this story is even possible, that it is even credible a man could have an emotionally intimate “relationship” with a woman who did not exist?

Here, then, in a nutshell, is the great paradox of the communications revolution. It has left us both better connected and yet, farther apart, because actual contact is no longer required. Indeed, we’ll likely see more stories like these as texting substitutes for conversation, Facebook supplants friendship and we “live” ever more online.

Some of us remember a day when she wasn’t your girlfriend unless she’d allowed you to hold her hand or steal a kiss. You know, physical contact in an analog world.

But that was then.

One is reminded, in a twisted sense, of the outcry over a 1964 news story out of New York. Though key details were later refuted, the initial version had 38 people watching from their windows as a young woman named Kitty Genovese was raped and killed, but declining to come to her aid because they did not want to get involved. That incident became an iconic illustration of an abiding sense that people were becoming alienated from one another.

If that was a legitimate fear 49 years ago, how much more legitimate is it in 2013, when the streets are filled with people who pass one another yet never see one another, sit next to one another yet never share so much as a nod of acknowledgement, so enrapt are they — we — in words and images on tiny screens. Indeed, if the ‘70s were the Me Decade and the ‘80s were the Greed Decade, it seems entirely likely historians of the future will remember this as the Screen Decade, the years spent looking down.

So while some people are asking what Te’o knew and when he knew it, some of us simply marvel that we have come into a time when such a story is even possible. Apparently, however, what supposedly happened to Te’o is common enough that it even has a name: catfishing.

It is relatively immaterial whether he lied or not. What is of greater interest is that the story illustrates a sea change in what now constitutes interpersonal relationships. And the new norm cannot help but seem a little odd to those of us who remember when a relationship — or at least an intimate one — presupposed that you and the other person had actually met.

Of course, that was the olden days. Now so much of our world is digital — movies, music, shopping, books — it’s easy to believe everything just works better that way.

But guess what? Not everything does.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 1 month ago

It's true that so much of our world is digital today, but take the image on a television or computer monitor screen for example. They're composed of digital pixels, but as the pixels get smaller and smaller, they approach and in some cases surpass the appearance of an analog photograph.

Likewise, the bits of a digital audio sound system long ago surpassed the audio quality of analog sound reproduction techniques. And, long distance telephone calls are no longer so expensive that they're metered by the minute, and telephones are held in the hand, and require no cord, just a periodic charging.

But what has happened is that our technology has surpassed our ability to utilize it well. People have become distracted and distant from each other, and criminals have learned new ways to exploit others. It requires vigilance to protect ourselves from them, and a whole new industry has sprung into life to help us to do that.

Many people are subject to information overload, and just can't seem to be without their constant text messages, or libraries of music that they constantly listen to. In fact, it's at the point of presenting a danger to themselves and others, since they are so distracted by text messages and music in their ears that they don't pay attention to their surroundings.

There has been some speculation that this explosion of information overload is responsible for the large increase in the diagnosis of ADHD, but I don't know if that's actually true, the result of diagnosis of cases that were already at that level, or overdiagnosis.

But you know, you hardly ever see a teenager reading a book anymore.

Maddy Griffin 5 years, 1 month ago

Shameful. At my grandson's middle school, their language arts teacher wants them to read at least 20 minutes a day as homework. Great idea,I thought, until I found out that Facebook qualified. It was already hard enough to get him to open a book.Now, taking away his fb page is the first punishment when he messes up.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 1 month ago

Actually, I have a bit of trouble myself with the computer. I have a whole lot of books, and of course there are thousands more at the library. But I never read those, instead I only read on the computer, news articles from all over the world.

I'm not sure whether or not that's good, but at my age, it's easier to focus on the computer monitor. At least, that's what I claim. The reason is that you need to refocus your eyes as you cross the page, I think. But I never read Ebooks, only news and history articles.

But I don't only read, I also write a whole lot. I comment on several sites, and my emails sometimes are incredibly long, and of course I make sure that my spelling and grammar are impeccable. Of course, spellcheck helps!

One friend tells me that I shouldn't be spending so much time writing all the time since I don't get paid for it, but that's really the only thing that I enjoy doing. When I'm writing, I'm in another world. Of course, I couldn't do it at all without the computer! So I'm a computer addict too, just as much as anyone else.

riverdrifter 5 years, 1 month ago

There was a bobblehead doll of Manti Te'o's girlfriend out for a short time, but it just didn't work out. You open up the box and there's nothing there.

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