Online friendships

The virtual world is creating a new dimension for us to think about. How real is the online world? How much should we engage with it and connect with it? Are their real people at the other side of the screen or just a misty glaze of a real person, always out of reach?

Tim Chester wrote a really good blog post about facebook, in fact he is writing a series of them which are really thought-provoking. I do always want to be careful how we engage with our culture and with facebook/twitter so embedded in our British culture, we need to be careful to not simply dismiss it out of hand. I think facebook can be used in a good way, we can redeem it for good but the lines are always blurry.

The real question is how real are the friendships we make online? Especially where we rarely make face to face contact, but most of the interaction is done through the computer screen? Are they real?

The danger perhaps is that its very easy to be more vulnerable online then it is face to face, because really no one can see your face if all you are doing is tapping away on a keyboard creating sentences. It’s easy to pour your heart out more and soon the person on the other side knows more about you then your friends in real life. But the difference is that they don’t really know you, because they don’t see your actions, your tone, the way you act in situations etc. I was in this situation not so long ago where through facebook chat I made a friend with a lady my age and doing a very similar job to me – we became close friends through facebook chat and we did meet up but mostly at conferences and the occasional visit. We became close friends very quickly because it was a lot easier to chat on facebook then it was to chat with someone face to face – she knew what I was thinking about at that moment in time and on some superficial level she knew me and I knew her. But in reality I don’t think it was a real friendship and I look back now and I think there were some real unhealthy attachments there which aren’t good and aren’t really based on reality. It got to a point where we realised that this wasn’t a friendship.

Why? Because it isn’t the same as going to the pub with someone and laughing together, crying together and sharing stories together. It isn’t the same as I meet up with a friend nearly every week for coffee and I watch how she interacts with her daughter and her husband and where they invite us for dinner and we share food together and encourage each other with the Gospel. It’s not the same as a couple of weeks ago I went to the house of a lovely lady and we chatted deep theology and spiritual things while drinking coffee and eating chocolate which was rounded off with some great time of praying for each other. You can’t do that on facebook.

Facebook and online communities may speed up “deep” friendships, but it misses out the important process for how we make friendships, how we connect and how we develop those friendships. Which can only properly be done face to face, with real life meetings.

Tim Chester’s says:

Facebook encourages you to live elsewhere. The gospel encourages you to live life here and now.

  •      You can tend your Farmville farm or you can get an allotment.
  •      You can catch up with friends on Facebook or you can go out on a cold, dark night to see real friends.
  •      You can catch up with “Friends” by watching the latest episode on the television or you can serve your neighbours.
  •      You can build a new city on Sims or you can be the city of God set on a hill with your Christian community.

Facebook is good for the on the surface stuff like arranging of meetings. But humans live to connect with the reality, the real life, the flesh! And community won’t ever really thrive through a computer screen, but through face to face.

Now the question that is on the back of my mind is – what about those that can’t get out the house? Where actually Twitter and facebook is a lifeline to connect with people? I would be interested to hear any comments on that. My hope and prayer is that there is a community around you that visits you, that connects with you. Does that happen?


3 thoughts on “Online friendships

  1. Thanks for this Cat – I really liked this, for a number of reasons, and significantly more than the Tim Chester piece on the same subject… I read his article but strongly suspected from reading it that he doens’t actually use Facebook as a place to connect with people, and so is dismissing it out of hand as though it were an hour of playing video games rather than acknowledging it as a way of keeping in touch with people. One of the thing he bemoans, the lack of people keeping in touch with old friends, is actually facilitated by Facebook rather than prevented… (and i also found his tone unnecessarily critical…)

    Anyway! rant over! Back to yours!
    I think these things are complex because we too often set up a false dichotomy between ‘online’ and ‘real’, whereas they are both relationships and both real. It’s just that one is more immediate and physically present, and the other more mediated…

    I always think that facebook and twitter are the modern equivalent of the old ‘penpals’. This isn’t necesarily a new problem – there have always been friendships that have been mediated through writing in-depth and waiting for a reply. It seems churlish to dismiss this medium of friendship, particularlly as some of the Bible epistles seem to have been penned on that basis!

    Facebook allows a more superficial interaction and keeping in touch with a greater number of people. It doesn’t replace more intimate and physical interaction with a smaller number of people, but it seems like the one shouldn’t preclude the other.

    As you know, I am in the interesting position of being an extrovert who loves being around people and yet is housebound. I am the first to say that I love the amazing deep theological chats and the spontaneity of being with people. What a gift it is! And being prayed with is so much more special than being told that you are being prayed for (you reminded me of that recently!) 😉

    BUT there is a lot to be said for these online connections. I make contact with a different range and variety of people on Twitter and think about issues that I would never come across otherwise, simply because they have come into my online ‘circle’. There is an online community of people with M.E. which I am discovering is very supportive. They are not physical, but they are immediate, whereas most other friendships are physical but not immediate – they have to be scheduled in around other stuff. I suspect that even Tim Chester has to schedule people in when he has a study deadline!

    There are dangers, however, and i think you have highlighted one of them very sagely- the potential of sharing too much of yourself with someone completely outside of your situation. The ‘penpal syndrome’ (as I call it) can lead to you almost writing a reciprocal ‘diary entry’ to someone you haven’t met, simply because they arre safe and anonymous. You can present your side of the story and they don’t know how you are in ‘real life’ so they don’t know whether or not it needs correcting. So it can be an encouraging situation, but not much help if your perception of a certain situation in your life needs rebukiing or challenging – because they don’t have the perspecitve of your context. Friendships like this aren’t necessarily unhealthy, but they can easily become so. This is often how affairs are started as well, so it is good to be a little guarded on these kind of interactions…

    I will stop rambling now and let someone else get a word in! You’ve prompted a lot of thinking on this for me – maybe i should blog on it too sometime!

    Great post – thanks! 🙂

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