MCHENRY: Pride, prejudice and cyberspace

A couple days ago, someone “liked” one of my friend’s Facebook statuses. This made me think of Jane Austen.

For those of you who have never read one of Austen’s novels, they all have the very same arc. Let me summarize: young woman meets man, there is some sort of ritualized 19th-century dance party, complications ensure, more complications undo the earlier complications and then there are lots of marriages.

In fact, Austen’s protagonists are very much like college students. Not in the sense that we all want to get married and spend our time freeloading off each other in various mansions, but rather in our ability to read anything into anything. Austen’s characters spend their time inventing gossip, chasing romances and proclaiming universal truths from little to no evidence. I challenge you to prove that we don’t do the same.

Consider how easy it is to dissect a “like.” When, a couple days ago, my friend told me that the man she liked (not in the Zuckerberg sense) had “liked” her status (in the Zuckerberg sense), the only course of action seemed obvious — we had to decipher his encoded message.

We took the standard taxonomic approach to understanding the like she received: had she experienced any prior, non-cyber interest from this man before? How many other people had liked the status? When did the like in question happen? Could we assume that the man in question was in a chemically balanced mental state? Was he covering up for another relationship (as in “Emma”), or was he another victim of the “one in four” rule (as in “Clueless”)?

This sort of dissection seemed completely natural to us. We never once considered that the mystery man had accidentally clicked the icon — or that he might have actually liked what she had to say. For us, a “like” is never just a like.

Then consider that the “like” is the least complicated mode of Internet communication (barring the poke, which narrowly beats out Instagram for the title of the Facebook feature most likely to be used by Lydia Bennet). Imagine how much more nuance is assumed in the sly whisper of a Gchat or allowed in the double meaning of three consecutive text messages.

Electronics promise to make everything clearer, but every new kind of communication needs its own rules. What’s the etiquette on responding to a Facebook message now that your friend is notified once you’ve read it? Is it the same sort of obligation that forces Mr. Bennet to repay house calls, even if he disapproves of them?

Sure, you say, there are some Mrs. Bennet-level crazies out there who waste their nights overanalyzing life like it’s a Netflix costume drama, but the rest of us are off at Toad’s actually living.

But the fact that you may ignore the implications of your actions doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. You make think that there is nothing to be said about a kiss, or hookup or elopement to Scotland (looking at you, Mr. Wickham), but that doesn’t mean that the other person (or worse, their family) agrees.

To be honest, that sort of complication sucks. There are nights that I wish I could simply cut loose and moments I wish I could excise the consequences my actions spawned. Relationships are always difficult and prone to misunderstanding, even if you aren’t playing Austen’s marry-or-die-a-poor-spinster hard mode version of the social scene.

Now we can create drama with the click of a button — and it’s ridiculous. But compared Austen’s world, where a woman has no choice but to fixate on the one man she’ll ever talk to, college life is comparatively harmless. We may not have solved the mysteries of relationships, but, wow, it’s great that women who aren’t married after 25 are no longer a disgrace to their families.

So obsess over your Facebook statuses, your unanswered texts, friend requests and half-completed chains of chat. I’m right there with you. But every now and then, think of Jane and be thankful that, while we may still live in the world she observed, our lives are so much broader than she ever could have imagined.

Jackson McHenry is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at jackson.mchenry@yale.edu .

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