Remember when we were all a bit more mysterious? We didn’t have our every plan, opinion or thought published online in a tweet or status update? Remember when updating your friends on life happenings wasn’t through email and blog posts? Remember when we actually saw our loved ones’ faces when we communicated with them, or at least heard their voices? If you try really hard, you might even be able to remember the long lost art of … snail mail. Ah yes, those were the old days.
For our web-based generation, it would be possible to comfortably exist without ever having much face-to-face interaction with others. As long as we’re connected online in some form, we can carry on a “full” life: communicating with friends and family, watching TV or movies, finding new music, working, applying for jobs, shopping, ordering food, meeting significant others or new friends, attending “church” by listening to podcasts and more. We live in a generation where we think we don’t need to be in physical community with others to actually be in “community.”
We’re all engaged in some type of social networking online. Even this website can be considered a community; if you’re reading this article, or posting comments on the web site, you’re engaged in the RELEVANT community.
How do we even define “community” at this point? Is it the group of people we interact with online? Is it whichever group of people is around us physically? Maybe it’s both.
The question of balance
The important question we should ask is, “How do we find a healthy balance between web community and in-person community?”
“I feel, like with most things, online social networking should have boundaries and there should be a limit to its use,” says Megan Klavetter, a 25 year old involved in various online communities. “I don’t think it should be used as the sole means of social networking, but having it as an option can have its benefits.”
We’ve probably all been thankful, at some point, for online networking devices that help us reconnect with people. For many of us, these devices are the main way we stay in contact with family or friends, especially if we live far away. Especially for a more independent generation that likes to venture to different parts of the country and world for different jobs or life experiences. It allows all of us to hold on, as tightly as we want, to our existing relationships while we’re venturing on to new parts of life.
Basically, every relationship we have is sustainable through internet contact. But we also need to realize to what extent it distracts us from participating in face-to-face interaction. We should ask ourselves what we personally value in a community, and if our online relationships are as genuine as in-person ones.
Shane Hipps, author of the insightful book on technology and media, Flickering Pixels, says that our electronic culture affects us both personally and as a group in profound ways. "We become a kind of ‘tribe of individuals.’ A simple example is these two friends I have. They’re best friends and talk to each other at least 14 times a day on their cell phones. They live within two blocks from one another. When I last had lunch with one of them, he told me he had not seen the other guy in eight weeks. And the reason is because they experienced that kind of rapid-fire connectedness; it serves to inoculate your need to be together. So this really odd thing is happening: they’re more connected in terms of their content but less connected in terms of their relationship. And the reason I know that is because they both lamented me they don’t really feel they know the other person. They’re thrown together by these technologies, but they are being divided because they haven’t seen each other in eight weeks."
Hipps points to the Incarnation and our own created needs for community. "God made us embodied people," Hipps says. "If you and I are in the same room, there are all kinds of frequencies you can’t measure, see, taste, hear or touch, but you know they’re happening. You can tell when someone is angry by your intuitive experience of that person. There are realities that happen when humans get together that are almost impossible to convey any other way other than physical presence. There are energetic components to the way humans interact; this interaction is much more of a dominant way that we are connected to one another than just our words.
"So any of these electronic interactions are like playing a guitar with one string. You can play music, you can probably have the full range of notes you need to have, but you’re missing all the other frequencies and it’s not going to be nearly as full or beautiful as a guitar with six strings. The electronic age has this natural bias to disembody us, to discarnate us and to leave us operating primarily in the realm of content. But we’re missing all of these other layers of human experience that make it so rich, powerful and, frankly, transformative. It’s the reason that God decided to embody himself in the person of Jesus, because God understood that humans are created as beings that need to be together."
Our relationships look different, depending on the nature of the interaction. Think about how honest or blunt we would be if we had serious conversations in person, versus online. Klavetter continues, “I feel that online social networking is sometimes misconstrued by the users as a way of communicating without any personal backlash.” If we’re honest, haven’t most of us been in a situation where we reacted more harshly because we weren’t speaking to a face?
Hipps has much to say on the subject. "People have learned to have confrontations and conflicts digitally—usually on a blog or in an email or text message. I’ve interacted with people that have received really scathing emails that have been really painful and easily misunderstood. Then they’ve tried to write an email in to response to that very painful email and thing that that the great thing about e-mail is that they can write their thoughts down and think through exactly how to say it so that they don’t say something they regret. So then they argue that email is actually better at mediating conflict than doing it face to face. But without fail, the email is always misinterpreted and its always more hurtful than it was intended. It’s because there are all these other realities to way humans interact that have nothing to do with our conscious awareness, but have a huge impact whether or not conflict will be resolved or deepened."
Being technologically-minded in the church
Church communities are now shifting their means of communication toward online networking too. For Matt Metz, Young Adult Ministry Coordinator at Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church in Orlando, tools like Facebook and blogging have been beneficial in helping to spread the word about campus ministry activities.
“We have a web site specifically for the community. We send out invites and post publicity through it. It is our hope that students will see the pages and think to themselves, ‘Hey, there is something going on there’ and want to come and meet the community in person.”
With all of the connections being made through networking online, many more people know what’s going on within the church; teens and young adults, especially. “It’s the language that young people speak. We should be as trendy and active as possible in the online communities, but only with the goal that it will lead to a conversation in person, or a meeting with the community in person.” But what are the risks of using online communities to pull-in interested young adults?
As Hipps writes in Flickering Pixels, the screens of electronic media (and, we can assume, online forms of communication) “change our brains, alter our lives and shape our faith, all without our permission or knowledge."
And, of course, the time spent building relationships with people in person is lost. As Metz notes, “You can’t show someone that you actually really care about them online. You can’t take somebody’s hand and hold it to let them know it’s going to be okay. You can’t hug somebody through a computer screen. All you can do is exchange information.”
By spending time in these online communities, whether within the church or not, are we really spending time in community, or just building the illusion of community? Let’s participate in both types of community with awareness.