Being Connected to People (Not Programs)

If you’re following this blog, you’ve already heard a fair bit about limits. Hopefully, you recognize that you have some, and you’d like to live in a way that respects those limits and makes the most of your humanity.

One of the ways that we remain in active denial of our limits has to do with the enormous ‘virtual community’ of which we have become a part. Social networking websites, games and services are where many of us spend the majority of our internet time. Now before you click the ‘X’ and move on to the next tab, thinking, ‘another tirade against [technology I love]’, let me be the first to acknowledge the blessings afforded to us by these internet technologies.

Through Skype, Facebook, and many other similar services and programs, we have been able to stay ‘in touch’ (note the overextension of the metaphor) with family and close friends in ways that would have been impossible, and even unthinkable, for our ancestors – recent or ancient. Because these technologies have often filled a place in our lives that we never knew was missing, we are not prone to question the subtle ways that they are changing us.

What do I mean?

When I think about social networks, the most prominent idea that comes into focus is the gradual slippage of real friendship (and, by extension, community) into virtual friendship. I get the impression when I’m out and about that many of us are not considering how that ‘slippage’ is not occurring merely on the level of ‘departure from local community in favor of the internet’. When I say real friendship is slipping (or deteriorating) into virtual friendship, I mean additionally that our experience with virtual friendship is now informing our relational lives to the extent that our friendships with flesh-and-blood persons in our communities begin to be handled as though they were virtual.

This has been a gradual, but significant, loss.

‘But how has it been a loss?’ I hear you declaim. ‘I didn’t feel anything – anything except more connection, more friends, more data, more photos, more status updates – to put it bluntly, more life!’ This is what I think:

Virtual ‘friendship’ and virtual ‘communities’ are missing elements which were once critical to the definitions of the words themselves. Neither features much physical interaction in the same space. Both remove nuance, mood and character from much ‘conversation’ and frequently reduce language itself to the lowest common denominator. Both have a baked-in anonymity enhancement. Neither has a framework for (or puts much emphasis on) accountability and responsibility, which are critical to sustaining actual human relationships.

And all that is bad.

But what most concerns me as I write today is that universal characteristic of all things virtual, specifically applied to friendship and community: the sense of the unlimited.

How many Facebook ‘friends’ do you have? I know folks who have thousands. Only simple math is required to determine whether or not one person can really keep ‘in touch’ with so many at more than a ridiculously superficial level. Nevertheless, we have them – it’s so easy, after all! Just a couple of clicks. And you can have as many ‘friends’ as you ever wanted, and then some. This ‘network’ then becomes the hub of our own personal media torrent – which used to be outside us and much less directly affected by our tastes and whims – and the warm glow of continuous updates, images, messages, pokes, prods, and pixels seems to say that LIFE is happening… it’s happening EVERYWHERE, all around the screen us!

And, as you know very well, that’s just the beginning. There are forums and societies whose sole existence is in the murky cyberspace of the fiber-optic world where you can ‘belong’. If you have an interest, no matter how obscure (or taboo), there is a forum for you. All you need are a username and password. If you’ve got a few hours here and there, you can begin ‘belonging’ to tens or even hundreds of these, with email updates streaming in around the clock as your new ‘friends’ and ‘acquaintances’ post from Madrid, Athens, Bangkok, and Sydney.

But is this bent toward the unlimited healthy for us? Is it good, humanly speaking?

My experience is that, though I have benefited from technologies like these and many others, I find my life (a) incredibly more complicated, and (b) far less connected to those around me when I am very involved in virtual ‘community’. Remember, we were made for limits.

In the small space of this post I am not prepared to deal adequately with the diversity of subjects brought to mind in thinking of community and friendship. This is a preliminary. And as such, all I have to offer are a few preliminary observations:

  • Let’s (re)consider the meaning of embodied friendship and community. What is required for the maintaining of a flesh-and-blood friendship or community over the long term? What does is really mean to ‘be there’ for someone, to be ‘in touch’? What is required in order to handle relationships responsibly, and to have your real life accountable to others who will see your walk from day to day?
  • Let’s consider our limits. Is it possible, time-wise, to have a hundred non-virtual close friends? Fifty? Ten? Can we maintain relationships in more than (at most) one or two non-virtual communities at a time? What might this say about how we should spend our time and energy?
  • Let’s think of those who are closest to us, who we are most likely to have an impact upon, first. This is a natural extension of the principle of limitation. You can’t really be everywhere, all the time. So focus on being where you have been ’emplaced’, where you can personally participate in a growing framework of people and places with the possibility of real growth and change in view.
  • Let’s imagine ways we might grow closer to the local communities of warm bodies that inhabit the places where we live and work – our neighborhoods, our offices, our churches. Honestly, is there anything more superficial than clicking the ‘Like’ button? What happens when you are shown real gratitude for something you did – in the body – that had a lasting effect on the people around you? Non-virtual relations require a good deal more from us than their virtual counterparts, but we must remember that the rewards correspond to the type of interaction: virtual friends, virtual rewards.

Embrace your limits. You were made for them, and neither you nor I will do very well if we try to maintain the illusion of the unlimited any longer. Let’s rediscover what it means to be ‘connected’, in a particular place and over the long haul, rather than to ‘connect’ on our own terms and until we feel the need for a different (and easily altered) network.

You will be more human, and you will be more happy.

What kinds of action can we take to increase our investment in real friendship and keep the virtual and unlimited at a reasonable, skeptical distance? Do you agree or disagree with my preliminary observations? Let us know so that we can grow in our pursuit of limited life together.