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Harriet Walker: Missing people is a lucrative industry


It's a rare feeling nowadays actually to miss someone. How can you, when the world is so hyper-engaged and perennially in touch? How can you ever really feel the absence of a person when they're there in your phone, a photo message away, or tweeting their exact movements? Looking at their Facebook profile makes up for not looking at their face; their eyes meet yours over Google searches, if not the breakfast table.

My boyfriend has been away for a month, woe is me. That might not sound like very long (if you're over 50) or it might sound like eons (if you're under 15). Personally, I've found it somewhere in the middle. It's 30 days of getting on with things, treading water and keeping busy. But then again, it's just 30 days like any other. It's 30 days of washing your hair, having a drink and eating a sandwich. He's back soon, after all.

But the business of missing people is a lucrative industry – and I'm not just talking blow-up dolls and boyfriend-shaped pillows (they're Japanese, obviously, and have a bolsterish arm that you can snuggle into. And no, I haven't gone out and bought one.)

Our interconnectivity and constancy has come about because the internet has been, in part, a project to make sure we never feel like we're on our own. Whether the US government admits it or not, it invented a thing to make every saddo in the universe feel less of a saddo.

You didn't think all these internet substitutes are about anything other than allaying the aching void in one's life, did you? Social networking is not so much about meeting new and interesting people as keeping tabs on the interesting people you already know. And helping you feel, in this giant, souped-up and over-connected world where everyone knows you from Twitter before you've even met them, that you matter – maybe even that you are missed. It's knowing that someone else is always awake in the middle of the night when you are. While our earthbound forebears knew that but couldn't act on it, for us that trans-ocean, trans-temporal companionship is only ever a chatroom away.

Sociable loneliness is a modern affliction, and by that I mean the sensation of being utterly on your own, even as you scroll through up-to-the-minute lists of pensées and witticisms from 900 of your closest friends on your iPhone. But loneliness is not the same as missing someone. Missing someone is having something happen to you, wanting to tell that thing to the person you most want to hear it, and then remembering they aren't there to tell it to.

Missing someone is – and it's depressing, this – seeing something on Twitter that they might find funny and then attempting to tweet it to them, before remembering (shock!) that they are offline and that's why you're missing them. *Throws phone across room and has a little cry*

But the most worrying thing about how difficult it is really to feel the lack of a person these days is what that might be doing to our emotional spectrum, to culture. Being as plugged in as we are, our latterday brand of touch-type telepathy will render us as reactive, heart-strings-wise, as a goldfish that forgets who or what it is missing the second it remembers it's missing something but can't remember who or what it is.

How would troubadours work their lyrical magic these days without the breathing space to adore their ladies fair from afar? Would they stand at castle walls (OK, the electric gates of yuppie high-rises) and serenade them? Or would them just join FourSquare, announce on Twitter that they'd taken up their post and wait for the lady fair in question to buzz them in?

What would Emily Dickinson do – with all her Arbitrary capitals and breathy – Dashes? Would she have sequestered herself inside, writing inscrutable almost-love notes to an object of affection whose identity has never been revealed? Or would she just have clicked "busy" on G-chat and attempted to lure the object in that way? Would she have Skyped whoever-it-was and told them she was getting A Bit Bored – of it all – ?

How do you really miss someone when the furthest they ever really are from you is when you accidentally leave your phone in your handbag in the other room?

It's when those go-to techy stand-ins fail you, that's how. It's waking up and checking your emails, your Twitter, your Facebook – hell, even your doormat – and finding nothing there. It's patting the empty bum-print in the sofa next to you thoughtfully and carrying on watching telly with a sad little sigh.

Like I said, he's back soon. I'm already anxious that the very technology that has kept him not too far away, even though he's on a different continent, will lash out viciously upon his return and, rather than yielding precious contact, will instead mean endless slideshows and interminable holiday snaps of people I will never meet.

Maybe, just maybe, I'll end up missing the time I spent missing him.