Longing, Online: Permanent Telepresence

The intimacy with the other

Published June 17, 2023
In the virtual sphere, intimacy is projected onto another dimension—everything is imitated rather than experienced first-hand. The intersubjective structure is removed from its typical environment, and can be simulated at any time through the phone, the computer.

An online interaction involves entirely different nuances and barriers. Fluidity is interrupted, the entire spectrum of body language is not accessible to read. We accept the virtual as a proxy, we use it to simulate intimacy—imitating nearness. The other never truly goes away from you, their virtual presence can always be accessed.

This feeds into our motivation/reward cognitive behavior system. When we want to see the other, when we long for them, we can log in. One doesn’t have to suffer loneliness or despair to fill our hunger for the other’s presence.

The issue here is that the full cycle of longing leads to resilience. The more you yearn and do not receive, the better you’re able to recuperate your emotions. Time heals all. When the period of longing is stopped short, we learn to return to the pattern of fulfillment. We are the monkeys pressing the response bar for stimulus.


In the virtual world, one doesn’t have to wait for the cycle of longing to end. They can check in on those they care about— give calls, texts, emails, updates, photos. Sometimes, we don’t even know who we are longing for, but we yearn to be heard, to be seen. We send our thoughts and evidence of life into the aether for anyone to receive.

When the other doesn’t respond to our calls of longing, we may check photos, videos, texts, online statuses, tweets, and updates new and old to give us the comfort of the other being there, for us. The imitation of closeness is enough to feed our longing, to silence it temporarily.

I pine for the other—I long for them to respond to my email, to return my call, to answer my text, to post. A signal of life, so I may imagine them where they might be, suppose what they might be thinking, and ease the anxiety of my loneliness.

“Girl, you know I miss you,
I just wanna kiss you
But I can't right now, so, baby
Kiss me through the phone”
    -Soulja Boy, Kiss Me thru the Phone, 2008

This complex enables us to become the “watchers.” We surveil, scroll, track, update, refresh. When the feeling of longing sets in, we pull out our phones to ease the blow. This has become a natural response to the pang of isolation. What are the others doing without me? I can find out.

To share one’s location on Find My Friends feels like the deepest offering of the virtual self. And yet, we do it without much thought. Here you are, my friend, I give to you the greatest virtual gift: to watch me, endlessly.

This simulation of closeness fits the description of telepresence, where we feel that the other is brought to us virtually:

“The problem, actually, does not lie in telepresence, which amplifies our own possibilities to the level where distance is abolished; but in tele-absence, which withdraws from its own access. The withdrawal of the alien strikes me with more force than the resistance of the alien, which is something I can defend myself against.”
        -Waldenfels, 2009, p. 110

When the telepresence of the other is received, and then gone away, we act like monkeys seeking our precious reward.
Again. Again.

The mere thought of our friends, lovers, and family prompts a reach: we reach to our phones, to a new tab. To be virtually engaged in their telepresence is a way to reach out to their digital being, a fragment of themselves.

The other’s total body is negated in these interactions; not necessarily entirely, like they are in text-only conversations, but parts of it are used to sustain a telepresent interaction. Even the voice, as it is part of the body, is given through a phone call. The face and hands in a video call. Their likeness in a photo. We can receive parts of the other, but not all of them.

When we receive the telepresence of the other, they no longer take up space in our lives, only time. Their person is reduced to a figuration of pixels. This is a reproduction of the fragmented version of themselves that they put forth—it is impossible to access the totality of the other through the digital.

Still, this fragmented being will suffice, for now. My cycle for longing has been stopped so short that I barely have to think of the other before enacting the stimulus. With your phone, you don’t have to miss anybody.

I see her online,
I don't think that I should be calling
all the time,
I just wanted a happy ending
       -The 1975, If You’re Too Shy (Let me Know), 2020

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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