It’s Complicated: The FaceTime Relationship
Video chat ushered in a new era of communication technologies. It’s the latest in a long line of technologies that have allowed us to connect with one another — one that undoubtedly fulfills (and fuels) our longing for immediacy. It’s preceded by posted letters that arrived every fortnight or so, to the telegraph, to the occasional operator-connected call, to a phone in every household, to call waiting, to accessible long-distance calling, to FREE long-distance calling, to online chat and text messaging, and many other advancements in between. The introduction of FaceTime to Apple devices in particular took video chat one step further: it freed users from their computers, putting their ability to communicate face-to-face with people from around the world conveniently in their pockets and purses.
In “The friendship assemblage: Investigating programmed sociality on Facebook,” Tiana Bucher argues that social networking sites — specifically, Facebook, and all of its programmable components — create an assemblage that enable friendships in a way that wasn’t possible prior to their existence. She takes the stance that Facebook as a technology is not neutral, but “rather a mediating and productive force” (p. 480). This force, this assemblage, brings “heterogeneous elements together — in this case, producing new modalities of friendship” (p. 481).
We should consider Apple’s video application FaceTime in the same way: as a non-neutral technology that functions as an assemblage and creates meaning within our lives and relationships. So how has the introduction of FaceTime to our day-to-day communication practices brought various elements together to impact the way in which we maintain our interpersonal relationships today? More specifically, how has the remediation of interpersonal communication from letter to phone to video calls changed the labor involved in maintaining long-distance relationships?
FaceTime has become articulated with how we conduct relationships in a way that has forever altered our understanding of what a relationship is and what is required to maintain one. On the surface, long-distance relationships don’t seem nearly as hard as they were in previous generations, when posted letters and the occasional phone call were the norm. Now, you can meet someone — online or offline — and regardless of the distance between the both of you, you can FaceTime with them and have a face-to-face conversation. You can pick up on nonverbal cues; you can spend time in silence together as you might in person. In short, the relationships become more closely aligned with our in-person experiences because FaceTime has collapsed time and space for us in a significant, culturally impactful way. In many ways, FaceTime has made life better.
At the same time, FaceTime requires more of us. More than 94 million iPhones are used in America alone, making access to the video call application more accessible than ever. Because of this accessibility, FaceTime has elevated the level of regular communication required within long-distance relationships. And as our communication technologies have progressed, so has our desire for the next big thing. But, have we stopped to think about what the next big thing will require of us, or how it will alter our current communication practices? What might the future of long-distance communication look like as we continue to chase down that untouchable horizon? Before we answer some of these questions, let’s consider how FaceTime has become such an integral component of our culture.
FaceTime as an assemblage
In their chapter entitled “Articulation and Assemblage” from Culture and technology: A primer, Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. Macgregor Wise make a case for understanding technology not through the lenses of either technological or cultural determinism, but through that of articulation and assemblage: how technology and culture come together to make meaning and produce a particular moment in time.
Slack and Wise argue that both technological determinism and cultural determinism fail to explain the way in which technology works in tandem with various aspects of the human experience to affect our culture. “There is no culture and technology;’ they say, “rather there is technological culture” (p. 155). Articulation and assemblage allow us to move towards understanding and embracing a technological culture, because they “provide tools to understand these dimensions and open up useful strategies for action in relation to…any technologies, with far more sophistication and hope of being able to make a difference” (p. 151).
Articulations are defined as “the contingent connection of different elements that, when connected in a particular way, form a specific unity” (p. 152). Assemblages are made up of these articulations; they draw attention to “the ways that these practices, representations, experiences, and affects articulate to take a particular dynamic form with broader cultural consequences” (p. 156). In other words, assemblages embody the form articulations create to make meaning within our culture. Assemblages create our identity, and our identity is contingent upon the articulations from which it is assembled.
Within these assemblages, particularly strong connections emerge — lines of tendential force, which are “held firmly in place by the work of many articulations” and tend to “remain articulated in spite of (less convincing, less powerful) efforts to disarticulate these connections” (p. 155). It’s these tendential connections that, once articulated, have the ability to shape the way we understand the consequences of technology working within our culture.
FaceTime, analyzed through the lenses of articulation and assemblage, makes apparent the line of tendential force that is the articulation of FaceTime to our ability to form deeper interpersonal relationships. FaceTime changes how we go about seeking out and maintaining this elements of our lives, and therefore changes the way in which we understand and interact within our culture.
Our interpersonal relationships are no longer defined by their time and space limitations. That which was once only possible if we lived within driving distance of another person is now possible through the use of FaceTime. Certainly, previous forms of communication had similar effects; my mom and dad, for instance, would have never developed a relationship without modern methods of mail delivery, or without the ability to call one another (more on their experience shortly). FaceTime, however, has taken these affordances to an entirely new level. It takes mere seconds to connect with someone over FaceTime, and it can be done cheaply and conveniently.
As FaceTime and other communication technologies develop, these articulations and assemblages are sure to develop with them. At the same time, we open ourselves up to new requirements for maintaining our relationships. As advanced communication technologies become even more tendentially articulated to our culture, we, in turn, become more bound to do work for those technologies. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at an example of what communication within a long-distance relationship looked like in a previous generation. Let’s talk about my parents.
Long-distance, then and now
My mom and dad are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this July. They’ve raised four fully functional members of society, worked as missionaries, and moved across the country more than once in their lives. They’re both successful in their careers, and have settled into a dream home on a quiet lake in rural Ohio. All of this began through a chance meeting through a mutual friend, and made possible through a steady flow of letter correspondence that lasted for about two years.
They met in 1972. My mother was working as a teacher in Cleveland, Ohio, while my dad was enrolled in seminary in St. Louis. They met through a mutual friend in Chicago, a man I affectionately refer to as “Uncle Dave” to this day.
They dated long distance for two years. For about one and a half years of that, things were mutually understood to be casual. Communication was kept primarily to weekly letters. Because of the casual, non-committal style of the relationship, my mom dated other men in Cleveland casually while my parents corresponded. It wasn’t until my dad made his true sentiments known in “an amazingly romantic letter” that their relationship became much more serious and completely exclusive. Fortunately for my dad, my mother emphatically returned those feelings.
It was at that point that letters went from weekly to daily. “I looked forward to mail call everyday at the high school where I was teaching,” my mom said. “I could hardly wait for my planning period so I could go somewhere by myself and read the letter of the day.” There were no ground rules laid, no expectations for communications set that provoked daily letters from my dad. It was simply how they chose to maintain the relationship. After six months, they made a big decision: My mom relocated to St. Louis. They dated for two years more and married in 1976.
Fast forward today, where my own long-distance relationship flourished through the use of modern communication technologies, remediated from those my parents employed — primarily, through FaceTime.
My fiancé and I met while I was on vacation in Florida. He was living there at the time, and I was in Chicago. We met through friends on this trip, connected, and — because we are both iPhone users — began calling one another on FaceTime almost immediately.
In many ways, FaceTime made our relationship so much more fulfilling. It also made it possible for us to get to know one another on a deeper level. We didn’t just hear each other; we saw each other. We received visual signals of happiness, anger and sorrow. We could sit in silence but still connect. We became more real to one another.
We FaceTimed each other at least once a day for a year and a half before I made the decision to move to Florida for a while so we could be with one another. This was in addition to the numerous texts, Google Chat conversations, and phone calls that were smattered throughout our days as well. Since we met, we’ve never gone more than a half day or so without hearing each other’s voice, at the very least. This is a stark contrast to the way my folks communicated, where a simple letter sufficed.
I believe that it’s because of this constant connectivity, because of the immediacy afforded to us through our daily use of FaceTime, that our relationship became serious very quickly. We were exclusive within just a few months. There was no prolonged casual dating period as there was with my mom and dad.
At the same time, so much of our time was devoted to maintaining the relationship. And, so much of our time was required of us in order to maintain the relationship. If one of us happened to go a day without placing a FaceTime call to one another, it resulted in some degree of hurt feelings or confusion. Our level of use of FaceTime carried real consequences within our relationship.
More convenient, more work
So what about FaceTime makes us want to do more work within it and for it in order to maintain fulfilling, long-distance relationships? If we consider Bucher’s argument that FaceTime as an assemblage is not neutral, then what kind of expectations for maintaining long-distances relationships are programmed into FaceTime, simply by virtue of the elements out of which it is composed?
I’d argue that FaceTime sets the expectation of frequent, on-demand communication because of how convenient the application is to use. FaceTime fulfills much of what Slack and Wise discuss about the narrative of convenience in Culture and technology: A primer. Slack and Wise dissect how convenience, along with the technological narratives of progress, determinism and control, motivate our culture’s desire to create new technologies — and how those new technologies, in turn, begin to shape those narratives within our culture.
In order to understand how the technological narrative of conveniences shapes our culture through FaceTime, we must ask ourselves how FaceTime makes our lives better. With the convenience, Slack and Wise focus on one component of what constitutes “better:” that it meets all bodily needs. “Understanding the changing nature of bodily needs is key to understanding the uniqueness of this contemporary role of technology,” they explain (p. 29).
They discuss the “contemporary value of overcoming the limits of the body” as seeing our body as something that is lacking in some way and needs to be remedied with some sort of solution. For Slack and Wise, limits are meant to be conquered, and new technologies “promise to overcome the receding limit horizon” (p. 30).
When it comes to communication technologies like FaceTime, those limits take the form of time and space, and they illuminate our desire to collapse time and space in order to make life better in some way; to make it easier to stay in touch with our loved ones, no matter where they might be in the world, for instance — to “be everywhere at once without exertion” (p. 31).
Without exertion, indeed. As I mentioned earlier, there are more than 94 million iPhones in use in America. That means at least 94 million instances in which FaceTime can be used to make a call quickly, cheaply, and effortlessly. That doesn’t include all of the Apple desktops and tablets that are equipped with the app as well. Apart from the potential requirement of a wireless network (though many users can rely on their data coverage), the ability to place a video call has never been more accessible.
So, if we are to believe that we can use video calling at a higher rate and with more ease than ever before because of FaceTime, it also reasons that we would have new expectations for communications. We expect others to also have FaceTime enabled, for one. I expected to be able to reach my fiancé on a video call virtually anytime and anywhere in order to engage in meaningful communication with him.
As such, we are all doing more work to stay in touch with people in a way we find more fulfilling; in a way that seems to make life better because it brings us closer to overcoming our physical limits. Having an app that collapses time and space for us makes us feel compelled to do so as often as possible, especially when it comes to something as valuable to us as relationships with the people we love.
What we sign up for when we make progress
As we move on from FaceTime and continue to try to overcome the limits of our body, to chase down that receding horizon, what sort of picture do we paint for the future of our communication practices? What are we signing ourselves up for as we progress towards “better” technologies? With every attempt to create a better world, are we creating more work for ourselves — and more importantly, is it worth the extra work?
In many ways, FaceTime is a gold-star example of how our desire for technological progress — another one of the narratives Slack and Wise discuss — has led us to realize a better, more fulfilling life. They discuss progress by framing it within the values of US culture. They posit that in our culture, “The idea of progress has been closely allied with the idea of technology, and vice versa: technology is progress, just as progress suggests more and new technology” (p. 9).
This is most certainly true of FaceTime. It is, in part, a manifestation of our culture’s desire for more technology. Now it isn’t enough to call someone, you must also be able to see their face during that call — and that, friends, is progress. Throughout their discussion, Slack and Wise compel us to ask this central question about technology: “Is more technology always better? Is the world a better place now than it used to be” (p. 9)? Are we receiving or accomplishing something greater because of a form of technology?
In the case of FaceTime, I would answer that with an unequivocal “yes,” despite the added work it requires of us. It allows us to stay in closer touch with loved ones. I would argue that this particular piece of added technology actually does make life better, because it opens up more avenues to human happiness and fulfillment. However much more time I spent engaging in FaceTime calls was spent developing a meaningful, lasting relationship with my life partner — and for me, like any good relationship, that is worth the work.
Bucher, T. (2013). The friendship assemblage: Investigating programmed sociality on Facebook. Television & New Media, 14(6), 479–493.
Reisinger, Don. “iPhones in use in the US rise to 94M, new study suggests.” CNET. 15 May 2015. http://www.cnet.com/news/nearly-100m-iphones-in-use-in-the-us-new-study-shows/
Slack, J. D., & Wise, J. M., (2007). “Articulation and Assemblage.” In Culture and technology: A primer. New York: Peter Lang.
Slack, J. D., & Wise, J. M., (2007). “Progress.” “Convenience.” In Culture and technology: A primer. New York: Peter Lang.