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The Way We Relate Is Profoundly and Permanently Changing 

The last decade has reshaped how we relate to each other. Social media created a rapidly evolving discussion forum that is sometimes sweet or nostalgic, other times inane, and too frequently ugly. The COVID-19 pandemic restricted in-person connections as never before in history and accelerated digital communications by at least a decade.

On October 28, 2021, Facebook’s parent company was renamed Meta, as Mark Zuckerberg explained in his Founder’s Letter. The announcement is far more than a name change. It is a commitment to a new generation of the Internet called the Metaverse, which Meta believes will change every person on the planet—especially how we relate. Zuckerberg’s letter states, in part, that “The next platform will be even more immersive—an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” He says of this new Internet platform: “The defining quality of the metaverse will be the feeling of presence—like you are right there with another person or in another place.” 

The metaverse opens a new chapter in human relationships. Soon anyone in the world with little or no understanding of technology will be able to digitally connect to anyone, anywhere, in any language to share experiences as if in-person. Let that soak in for a moment. My book, The Potentialist I: Your Future in the New Reality of the Next Thirty Years, describes this digitally enabled world and how to adapt and succeed. This blog introduces one of the necessary adaptive skills—forming intimate relationships digitally with people you may never meet in person.

Will relationships in a digital age be more or less valued and meaningful? 

Despite three million years of innovation steadily improving the quality of life and often saving them, the first reaction of most people is to distrust it. Perhaps they do so because unintended and sometimes unfortunate circumstances always accompany innovation. The widespread belief today is that digital communications deteriorate or even destroy relationships.

COVID-19 pandemic requirements transformed how and where we work, learn, worship, and obtain medical and mental health care using video conferencing apps like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and others. Many people felt that their videoconferencing pandemic experiences were devoid of the unique qualities of in-person experiences that COVID-19 prevented.

In fairness, however, the rapid adaptation in the pandemic to videoconferencing in its relatively crude early versions is a tribute to human ingenuity and resiliency. Now marry that adaptive skill to the promise of the metaverse enhanced relationships in a decade or two. The likely outcome is that digital communications will expand the number and depth of relationships possible while making in-person experiences more valued and richer. Technology alone will not improve relationships, however. Every innovation requires new adaptive skills and behavior. Relationship mindset and skills will need to adapt to maximize the potential of the technology to broaden and enrich relationships.

Meaningful relationships will be more critical in a digital world.

Meaningful relationships are essential to physical and mental well-being and even life expectancy based on numerous studies by respected medical institutions. Families, commerce, and society rely on meaningful relationships to function. Being receptive to meaningful relationships and knowing how to form them are required career and life skills. Those skills will be more critical in the future because you will live longer and have many more jobs and careers in a mostly digital world.  

Relationships become meaningful when imbued with intimacy, a misunderstood and misused term in contemporary society. Don’t be surprised if its meaning is fuzzy. It is frequently and incorrectly equated to love, sexual intercourse, an emotional state, or romantic relationships. Intimacy is far more than any of these.

Intimacy defined

Intimacy’s synonym “kinship” (meaning “from one seed”) clarifies its meaning. Intimacy connects us to others so strongly that we experience oneness, indivisibility, inseparability, unlimited connectedness, as if from a shared origin. Intimacy enriches relationships because we truly see the other person and connect and share the joy of being together. Intimacy sets a new standard for relationships. We never feel alone if we have at least one intimate relationship.

Intimacy is a precondition of love but is not identical. Intimacy has its own qualities that parties must share to develop and thrive, including trust, desire to deepen the relationship, engagement, values (especially about relationships), and shared concern or empathy for each other’s welfare. Even if all these are present, intimacy may prove elusive, like love. It cannot be made to happen; the conditions are created where it may happen. You may be unsure how to foster intimacy in a digital environment even if you have intimate, meaningful relationships.

Intimacy without proximity

The classic fourteenth century poem Inferno by Italian writer Dante Alighieri describes hell as lost souls seeking escape but unable to assist or comfort each other. Author Melissa Bank wrote in The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing: “Dante’s definition of hell . . . proximity without intimacy.” The challenge of digital intimacy is the inverse, intimacy without proximity.

Intimacy without proximity is not new.

People faced and overcame the challenge of intimacy without proximity throughout history.  Those who cared deeply for another, or wished to do so, overcame distance (proximity) and time delays to create intimate relationships.

Before writing, they did so with messengers and go-betweens who spoke for them to the person with whom they sought intimacy. Writing first appeared some 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. Not long after, someone wrote the first intimate letter to a friend or lover. The art of letter-writing developed into a highly valued talent over the centuries. Skillful writers knew how to create intimacy without proximity. People separated by great distances and months between letters were able to meet, develop relationships as lifelong friends, or fall in love. Correspondence between US President John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams exemplifies intimacy without proximity. 

In the twentieth century, the telephone enabled people to communicate in real-time regardless of distance. Most people saw it as an incredible, life-changing innovation, but some predicted that it would irreparably damage relationships. An elderly gentleman told my mother, “People will stop visiting and only talk on that contraption!” Similarly, there has been widespread angst that smartphones will permanently damage relationships. The critics tend to be short-sighted. Innovations are typically misused and abused until we adapt to them. We mature as we use them over more extended periods. Most of us have an intimate friend or family member who lives far away who we rarely see in person, yet we preserve our intimacy with them through the phone, email, texts, or social media. 

The metaverse vision can empower intimacy without proximity. Forget staring into a screen most of your life. That is not what is in store for twenty-first century humanity. Screens and keyboards will give way to voice and visual experiences through virtual and augmented reality and holographic images, and later to only thought-based brain to computer interfaces. It would be a mistake to underrate the importance of what this profound change in relating will mean to your life and career, but you must act.

Develop intimacy without proximity using digital communications.

Developing intimacy without proximity will become a recognized and essential career and life skill in the next ten years. Both digital and in-person relationships will increase in value as life and career are spent more in a digital world. Skills at building intimacy in one medium will enhance the other. 

Commit to learning everything possible about intimacy now. The resources are all around you, and most are free. Learn from people with high emotional IQs who seem to develop intimacy with others effortlessly. Learn from the abundance of books and online content. Study the rich art and history of letter-writing. Select a friend or coworker that is physically distant from you who shares a desire for a richer, more intimate relationship. Experiment with breaking the real and perceived barriers to digital intimacy. Learn together and then apply what you learn to other digital relationships. Finally, look for the for the next installment of my Relationship Competency in a Digital World blog series. The quality of your life and others can be enhanced.  

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Ben Lytle

Ben Lytle has been routinely ahead of the curve in his career as an entrepreneur, CEO, and investor and in how he has chosen to live. For several years, he has been paying close attention to the converging forces of change that few people have recognized. Ben makes a compelling argument in this first book that this convergence will reshape life as we know it and every human being as they know themselves today. Learn more about The Potentialist book here.