What is digital anthropology? In an ongoing blog series, VINAYA's in-house anthropologist Sammi demonstrates through exploring different questions and ideas. Here, she explores a personal anecdote of digital communication and human connection. 

In the name of Valentine’s Day, I’m going to take a bit of a break from my usual more research-based posts and turn the analytical lens onto myself and my relationship.

Here at VINAYA, we’re taking a hard look at how digital devices affect modern romantic relationships (you may have taken part in our survey that was posted recently). Our findings showed that the role digital devices play in our relationships is ambiguous, to say the least.

This ambiguity is something I personally resonate with. I’ve decided to keep a diary of how these devices facilitate communication between my boyfriend and I when we’re physically apart, as well as at times distract us from each other when we are together – because, research.

February 11th, 2016, from my laptop at VINAYA house.

11:30 AM

Yesterday Rob started a new job, making the jump from being product manager at a startup to corporate culture. At his previous job we would seamlessly communicate throughout the day, checking in every once in  awhile to see how the other was doing. Neither of us necessarily saw this as disruptive to our tasks at hand, but rather as a reassuring knowledge that we had support or comic relief just a click away.

As we lay in bed last night, I told him that it had made me kind of sad to not get any responses to the messages I sent him throughout the day, even though I understood why. Switching between spreadsheets and Facebook, or frequently picking up his smartphone was no longer appropriate or tolerated behaviour in his workplace.

Now I’m sitting at my desk, two unanswered Facebook messages burning a hole in my iPhone. I glance at them constantly whilst listening to Clair de Lune and feeling sorry for myself. It strikes me that having no messages from him to check or respond to has become considerably more distracting than the occasional amusing comment. Although I believe, or hope, that this is merely a period of adjustment that I’m currently using as an excuse to indulge my more dramatic side.

4:30 PM

I’ve received six messages since this morning, but two were ‘hi’ and one was ‘ok’ so they don’t really count. In an effort to avoid incessantly messaging Rob while he is unable to respond, I’ve been making mental notes of interesting or funny things that I want to tell him this evening. Maybe this will even mean that we’ll have more to share and discuss in person than usual, or maybe I’ll forget most of these, admittedly, unimportant observations.

9:00 PM

I have to say, after all my moaning over a lack of virtual attention throughout the day, we were both pretty terrible at avoiding digital distractions once we were actually in the same room. Although we were sitting next to each other, we were both glued to what was in front of us. In my case that meant watching TV on my laptop while scrolling through furniture sites on my phone, and in Rob’s case his attention was on beating strangers on Rocket League.

By the time I realised what was happening it was nearly 11 pm and time to go to sleep, I felt frustrated with both of us, because we should know better. I felt as though the small period of time that we have together at the end of each day had been taken from us. But, then again, I am a bit of a drama queen.

In the past we’ve dabbled in rules like ‘no screens after 9pm’, and both saw the benefits immediately, but found it really difficult to stick with. Taking a closer look at a typical day in our relationship has made me realise that implementing rules is definitely a tactic worth revisiting. This diary exercise has made me realise that the connection that digital devices allow when two people are apart isn’t really worth it if we allow them to have the opposite effect when we are together.

I can only wonder, what would an entry in your digital relationship diary read like?

Disclaimer: Upon reading this Rob insisted it be made clear that he thinks both Rocket League and being a corporate sellout are awesome.

Samantha Rosenthal is part of the VINAYA Lab and a digital anthropologist with an MSc in Digital Anthropology from UCL. She is an American living in London and wine enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter.