Online social networks such as Facebook are fantastic tools in building community. Just last week, I befriended an old chum from elementary school whom I have not seen since, well, elementary school. Before this technology existed, I would not even consider finding such long-lost pals. Now I can do it at the stroke of a button.
This is a real asset for me because I am not good at keeping in touch with people. I forget to call family. Sometimes I even forget birthdays. Social networking Web sites have been a Godsend in my life.
The Internet has created a sense of community in profound ways, but there are pitfalls as well.
For one, there is a strong temptation for us to parade our lives on the Internet and flirt with virtual exhibitionism. I’m not so sure I want to know your every move, nor do I need to see your relationships evolve, fracture and get torn asunder before my very eyes. The pictures you took during your trip to Acapulco? Not so family-friendly.
In order to fight the urge to splurge on public domains, I recommend a family Internet policy that protects you and your family from nosey voyeurs, be it friend or foe alike.
Some of my personal rules include posting pictures that are modest and appropriate. That’s not to say that I have inappropriate pictures. I just don’t want people to peruse snapshots of my family’s trip to the pool or beach.
Also, I do not befriend coworkers, bosses or acquaintances unless I spend time with them outside of work. My status updates communicate my musings, but not my innermost emotional roller coasters. What you don’t know won’t kill you, trust me.
Another pitfall to social networking is that it is very addictive. Fifteen minutes to check our inbox can turn into three hours. Eventually, to invoke a tactic used by the Borg in Star Trek, our computers end up assimilating us. We spend so much time online chatting with friends that the Internet slowly replaces flesh-and-blood contact. We may be connected, but we are not connecting with a sense of authentic communion.
Consider these statistics from one study I read: only one in every four people has someone in which to confide. Sixty-one percent of people say they have only a few close friends. The Internet is giving us a sense of community, but is not providing the connections that make up sustainable support systems.
The recent film “Up In the Air” explores this theme. In it, Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, makes a living by traveling across the nation to lay people off from their respective employers.
A young, inexperienced efficiency manager figures out that if Bingham and his coworkers fired people via Webcams from their home office, then Bingham’s company would save money by cutting travel expenses.
Bingham opposes the Webcams and argues that online interactions with clients not only robs them of the dignity of the “firing,” but removes the personal support required for a sensitive moment of loss.
The movie teaches that we cannot conjure relational depth by simply logging onto each other’s lives. We require intimacy and nuance, awe and enchantment. Without real human contact, we miss out on the beauty of storytelling, the dance of non-verbal communication, awkward silences, moments of divine inspiration and sudden bouts of irrational laughter.
Even though my computer helps me remember birthdays, it does little in helping me find the relational intimacy to which I, and every other person in God’s creation, aspire. I just hope that, in the end, resistance is not futile.