So Sorry To Do This! Flakiness Epidemic Sweeps Digital New York

flakers5 4001 So Sorry To Do This! Flakiness Epidemic Sweeps Digital New York“I’m on my way to something I was supposed to be at an hour ago,” said the fashion journalist Zandile Blay on Monday night. “It’s Fashion Week and I’ve basically missed every single show I had, with the exception of one.”

She had wanted to go to the Betsey Johnson show. And the Alexander Herchovitch show. Also Wes Gordon. Also William Tempest.

“Right now I’m missing the preview for Harlem Front Row,” she said. “It’s a show coming up on Friday supporting designers of color. I’m on their board and I’m also covering it. I’m supposed to interview [the designer Teflar], but that was supposed to be at 7, and it’s 8 now and they’re probably gone.”

It was actually closer to 8:20. “I’ll probably end up my missing my dinner!” Ms. Blay said. “My two dinners.”

She’d had a busy day. She always does, thanks to all the responsibilities that come with writing for New York and Essence, maintaining a blog on the Huffington Post, overseeing two Web sites and consulting on social media strategy for a half-dozen fashion companies. Still, she was feeling awful about flaking out on so many different people. 

“I’m really going through guilt,” the 27-year-old said. “For someone to take the time to accept my RSVP and look at where I should sit on their chart, and then for me to just not show up? I know it’s tacky and it’s rude but …”

Ms. Blay calls herself the ultimate flake–no small claim to make in this city of canceled plans and last-minute text messages, where for many, flakiness is nothing less than a way of life.

There are different kinds of flakes, of course, and the overextended workaholic that Ms. Blay personifies is just one. Other types include the cool, sexy flake (Julian Casablancas from the Strokes, Richard Katz from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom); the benign stoner flake (Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express); and the misanthropic flake (your friend who never seems to leave the house). All of them are united by being reliably unreliable: They’re hard to get in touch with, they make plans they don’t keep and they stay home despite promises to show up. All told, they appear to put minimal effort into some or all of their friendships, and as a rule they make the people they’re flaking on feel unimportant.

Naturally enough, some flaky New Yorkers are oblivious to or accepting of their own flakiness, and drift happily along even as social norms increasingly dictate that everyone should be reachable at all times by phone, email or text message. Others, who constitutionally pride themselves on being dependable, and who consider flakiness one of the worst, most disgusting traits a human being can possess, take those social norms more to heart. For such people, the idea of being branded a flake has lately become an obsessing nightmare–one made infinitely more urgent by the fact that changes in technology have given them more social obligations than ever, crippling their ability to follow through as consistently as they think they should.

The result is that New Yorkers are walking around with a gnawing feeling in their hearts that they are disappointing and insulting everyone around them.

“I get really anxious with all the different modes of communication that I have to keep up with,” said Eugenia Ballve, 25, who works at a Chelsea art gallery. “I’ll get an email from someone who is asking me to hang out that night, then the next thing I know I have a text message from someone else who’s like, ‘Oh, what’re you doing tonight?’ And then I’ll get a Facebook invite or something like that. It’s just really hard to keep up.”

The definition of flakiness has expanded to include behaviors that are native to the digital age. Waiting too long to respond to email is flaky, for example, since everyone knows you have a smart phone and you could be–but aren’t–writing back at any moment. So is ignoring texts, and being a bad g-chatter, and neglecting to keep up with your close friends’ blogs. As obligations proliferate and ordinarily meticulous people find themselves unable to maintain the social vigilance they expect of themselves, small emotional injuries are inflicted with unprecedented frequency.

“We’re so hyperconnected that you’re expected to respond instantly, and if you don’t, people think you’re blowing them off,” said Mike McGregor, a 26-year-old music blogger who also works at the tech start-up Kickstarter. “A lot of times, it’s just that you have hundreds of messages to sift through, and not enough time in the day to deal with them.”

After a while, the unanswered messages start to bleed together–but while the specifics of their content may fade from memory, you remain vaguely conscious of all the people you’re ignoring, all the people who are surely extrapolating from your continued silence that they are not worth your time. 

“You’re always reminded, because they are literally in your pocket,” Mr. McGregor said.

Classic forms of flakiness are becoming more prevalent because of technology, too, as it is easier than ever to extend invitations as well as cancel plans.

“I’m a double-booking whore,” admitted Mariel Kessel, a 26-year-old graduate student at Columbia. “I just do it all the time, which is awful. It ends up being why I have to flake on people. Sometimes I feel really bad and I just cancel everything and I don’t do a single thing. … The guilt is so overwhelming. I probably feel worse than the person I’m canceling on.”

When Ms. Kessell flakes on her friends, she said, she usually delivers the bad news via text, g-chat, email and sometimes phone. “It’s always because I do it last minute, so I never know how to reach people,” she said. “Generally, if I feel absolutely horrible, I won’t call because I’m too embarrassed. So I’ll send a long apology email. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I think, comes up more in my subject line than just about any other phrase.”

According to William Powers, the author of the recently published Hamlet’s Blackberry–a high-minded critique of online life –technology has changed the very nature of plans such that they are much more likely to be broken. 

“Because we have this sense that we’re always reachable and can always reach others, everything is subject to change and all commitments are sort of elastic,” Mr. Powers said. “We’ve all become a little less skilled at making plans and sticking to them. And we’ve all experienced–I have, anyway–in the last 15 years an uptick in a certain kind of non-follow-through.”

These changes have radicalized New Yorkers’ attitudes toward flakiness, making some militantly opposed to it and others more permissive and understanding.

For an example of the former, one need look no further than “Fuck Yeah, Socially Lazy Sloth,” a new blog whose entire raison d’être is to make fun of flakes. The blog, which has enjoyed significant viral success, reflects the kind of extreme distaste some people have toward flakes, as well as the dizzying number of discrete shameful behaviors they engage in. The targets of the blog’s contempt include those who log out whenever they receive an IM on Facebook; those who never respond to friends’ g-chats with anything more effortful than “LOL” and “haha”; those who ignore phone calls and texts and return the morning after claiming they fell asleep; those who text with their friends conversationally but stop answering them as soon as the topic of actually getting together comes up; and those who RSVP “yes” to a party on Facebook and then never show up.

“Flakiness is just not cute. It’s not cute to make your friends wait for you without any kind of warning or any kind of notice,” said Sabriya Stukes, a Ph.d. candidate at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, once a flake in college, who at 27 expects punctuality of herself and others. “It’s not like it’s a quirky trait that’s kind of cool and fun–you’re just late all the time. It’s not that cool. If you’re running late, you can text someone.” 

There are different kinds of flakes, of course, including the overextended workaholic; the cool, sexy flake (Julian Casablancas from the Strokes, Richard Katz from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom); the benign stoner flake (Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express); and the misanthropic flake (your friend who never seems to leave the house).

Others believe that the antidote to flakiness-related angst is some kind of mutually assured flaking system, in which no one–neither flaker nor flakee–is made to feel guilty or resentful. According to Bela Shayevich, a 25-year-old freelance translator, there should be no stigma attached to making loose plans and allowing yourself the freedom to break them. On a recent evening, Ms. Shayevich was invited by a group of her friends to come dancing at the Brooklyn Bowl. She told them she’d meet them there later, and in the meantime went to get drinks with someone else.

Over the course of the night, many texts were exchanged in which Ms. Shayevich kept her dancing friends posted on where she was and when she’d be coming to join them. “Eventually I pushed it to the point where I showed up at the place where they were supposed to be at like 2 o’clock in the morning, and they had already left,” she said. “And then I went home, successfully avoiding the interaction.”

It’s not that she was against dancing or hanging out with those particular people, Ms. Shayevich said–it just didn’t end up fitting in with what she was doing. “I said ‘yes’ because it sounded like what they were doing was fun, and I personally enjoy the kind of interaction where I can drop in and leave,” she said. “I think actual flakiness is personal, whereas making looser plans is respectful, especially towards yourself, so that you’re a free person.”

“I think I’ve found that as I get older, I am much less dependent on my friendships and expect less from people,” Ms. Shayevich said. “I’m not interested in anyone feeling obligated to hang out with me, and I expect a certain kind of reciprocity. I think that kind of mutual respect develops into something that might have previously been called flaky behavior.”

 

MS. BLAY, IN case you’re wondering, did end up making it to her dinner on Monday night–one of them, at least. And the interview she was supposed to do with that designer is now going to take place over the phone.

“A flake is called a flake and not a bitch and not an asshole because they mean well,” she said. “It’s just there’s a lack of discipline to execute on that good intention, and I think that’s kind of where I am.”

“I’m also growing,” she added. “It’s not a lost cause. Some people might be more punctual than I am–it doesn’t make them better or worse than me; it just means they’re growing in a different way.” 

lneyfakh@observer.com