Virtual Community

“…we will do everything possible to avoid the confrontation with the
experience of being alone, and sometimes we are able to create the
most ingenious devices to prevent ourselves from being reminded
of this condition.”
~Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

I think we could aptly described ourselves as the “connected generation.”  I cruise Facebook, see pictures of a dear friend from her sixth grade year of elementary school.  She’s 11, then, hair in pig-tails suspended mid-air while she jumps a rope.  She has never not known a connected world.  Her status has always been known to the world.

It’s not enough that we constantly consume the personal information of others, that we provide our own endless streams of status updates, profiles, blog posts, and links.  We interact with them.

(Yes, I understand the irony in this post.)

Scott tweets a David Platt quote and I retweet it, begin a twittersation about the efficacy of the Gospel.  Preston writes about profanity and laziness, he repents publicly so I send it on to my friends, give Preston an “atta-boy.” (And by the way, you really should read Preston’s piece. It’s good.)  The High Calling publishes daily  articles on-line, and I repost them, comment on them, interact with the authors.

Each of these interactions masks my aloneness; each feigns “community” or at least gives some sense of virtual togetherness.  But here’s the confession, I’ve never met any of these peoplenot in real life anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my interactions in this space.  If I didn’t, I would not write here.  Scott, Preston, and The High Calling contribute in good ways to this space we call the internet, and I’m genuinely encouraged by their work.  But I’ve heard others advocate “online communities” as if these kind of virtual interactions are sufficient.  This is community, they argue.

Perhaps I’m about to commit blog suicide, but I’ve never been one to shy away from putting down a good dog, so to speak.  Here goes.

Do you think that social media provides us with community?  Is it real community at all?  Are there any aspects of “community” that lack in social media?  Are there any benefits of a connected, online community?  Have you read any books, articles, or studies that have helped form your opinions?  And what does scripture have to say about all of this (if anything at all)?

I think you can argue both ways here.  I’m genuinely interested to hear your thoughts.  Please jump in.  I’d still like to hear from the doctors, farmers, housewives, social activists, blue-collar, white-collar, black, white, and everyone in-between.  If you are a lurker or non-commentor, that’s great… but today is your second chance to jump in.

I’d love to put some flesh on these bones.  Who’s first?

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18 Responses to Virtual Community

  1. HopeUnbroken says:

    okay, so here’s the thing. i think online community CAN be deceptive. not that it always is, just that it can be. as someone who tends toward introversion, it is easy to think, “oh, yeah, i’ve connected for the day. i’ve talked, i’ve interacted, i’ve encouraged, exhorted, and whatever else i can think of.” sure, i’ve not carried a meal to someone who may need it, i’ve not gone out and served the poor, or any number of fill-in-the-blank things, but there is a sense that i’ve done something to fulfill my Christian calling. and that’s where i’m dead wrong. okay, maybe not dead wrong, but definitely not living out community in the fullest way Christ intended.
    on the other hand, the community i have found online has met needs in ways that i haven’t found in abundance in my neck of the woods. not that i don’t continue to seek it out. but i enjoy a broader range of perspective here. i enjoy a group of people who are passionate about writing. those things fuel my own passions about ideas, discussion, and. . . community. so i am then encouraged to reach out. branch out. attempt to find and rejuvenate my own sense of in-real-life community right here with people that i have to look in the eye and be accountable to.
    does any of that make sense? that’s my short answer, but all i have time for since my community of four kiddos that are demanding some mama time need my attention at the moment.
    LOVE this discussion and will look forward to reading what others have to say.
    blessings!
    steph

  2. HopeUnbroken says:

    i feel compelled to add that i’m not a total recluse. i have a beautiful community of people/friends around me. it’s just that i get weary of them on occasion 🙂 such is my introversion, i suppose.

  3. Adam says:

    I’m picturing someone eating the skin of an apple and calling it an apple. It resembles an apple in flavor and smell, in texture and appearance – it is indeed part of an apple, and in fact, the only part of an apple that is visible without biting into it. But to call an apple skin an apple is to forget the meat – everything but the surface layer, and the part we actually need.

    A glaring weakness, I think, of virtual community is that where the skin of an apple may only be vaguely bruised, the meat underneath can be totally rotten.

  4. bhirschy says:

    I don’t know where to start on this one.

    Simply. Yes it can be. Absolutely.

    I love getting to know people and so many of my opportunities for work have come through social media. I live in China so I’ve had to make the most of my social network community. However, I take every opportunity to put skin on the bones with those relationships. I’ve travelled a lot of places to meet people that I met online. I have about five great examples of people who I think are going to be life long friends that were products of social networking. All of whom I made great efforts to meet and talk in person.

    I meet almost weekly with a photography community online and we chat about tons of things – It’s a great group of people.

    However… it can also be bad.

    It is lacking in the sense that I truly believe it can never replace human interaction. It can never replace an evening on a porch smoking a pipe and drinking a beer or holding a friend while they are in the deepest of pains. So I would say that it’s lacking in many important ways. I fear for people when they are more connected to online communities than they are flesh and bone.

    Have you ever had to skype with someone or email someone who was hurting immensely. It feels horrible, excruciating… not enough. Simply not enough.

    • Adam says:

      “Have you ever had to skype with someone or email someone who was hurting immensely. It feels horrible, excruciating… not enough. Simply not enough.”

      I think you said it – there is good in it, but it’s simply not enough.

      • bhirschy says:

        For example, Adam, I have no clue who you are but I suspect someday that we will meet in person. Until then, I don’t see why we can’t have ‘community’…

    • Adam says:

      You let me know when you’re gonna sit on the porch with the pipe/beer, and I’ll be there with you in spirit. 🙂 And yes, I agree.

  5. sleighs79 says:

    I didn’t take time to eloquently pose my thoughts regarding online community, but my experience is this: a few years ago, my husband and I started a stage of life (foster care and adoption, to be specific) that left us isolated, confused, and alone in a lot of very real ways – from our family, from our church, from our friends. We struggled to find people who really understood us. This said not to denigrate in any way those who did support us (and there were many) – they just had no reference to truly understand the struggles, confusion, joy, even trauma that we have gone through. We knew virutally no one in our own area who approached foster care with the same faith basis and calling as us. We found that community online. We made real connections that really brought us through some very tough moments. Blog comments turned into actual phone calls from across the country. Receiving care turned into reaching out and giving care to others, miles and miles away. The community we’ve found online has emboldened and empowered us to speak truth, be present, appreciate diversity, and live out this Jesus-calling in our community locally, both church and city. The limitations are real though. I can’t go out to dinner with online friends. I can’t hug the woman who spoke God’s truth into my life on a day when I absolutely needed just those words. I could too easily just click to the blogs that say the things I want to hear, whereas a friend in-the-flesh, speaking truth, challenging me, holding my hands while we pray is someone who I can’t click away from. I could, unless I am intentional about my time and relationships, spend my energies solely online, neglecting an actual tangible presence in my family’s and friends’ lives. What is true in my life, right now, is that I desperately need both ‘worlds’. I live my life better because I have both.

  6. sleighs79 says:

    sorry for the duplicate – little fingers make blog commenting rough work sometimes…

  7. Love these thoughts, Seth. Maybe this story will best reflect my heart, which beats with yours.

    I came to the Together for the Gospel conference this week all alone. Well, almost all alone. About a month ago, I had exchanged DMs with a guy I only knew on Twitter, who was going. He was coming alone, too, from South Carolina. We exchanged cell phone numbers and agreed to connect while we were here, just to shake hands and chat if nothing else.

    As I write this, I am sitting here in an arena next to Mathew, a guy I ONLY knew online 3 days ago. But over the past 3 days, we have sat together at almost every session, shared 4 meals (soon to be 6) together, and had hours of very good conversation. We have talked about everything under the sun. We have disagreed in love, shared struggles we have in common, and encouraged each other in Christ. My time with Mathew made this conference. Made it.

    To me, virtual communities can be a rich source of encouragement. But we should make the technology work for us rather than being a slave to it. We should remember that there are living souls behind the lumens. And where virtual relationships are wholesome and healthy, we should have a strong bent toward establishing face to face contact as their culmination.

    To put it succinctly, our online community should not be instead of, but in addition to – and in hopes of being – face to face.

    For the many we never meet, there’s always heaven. But Seth, I have a strong feeling that heaven won’t be our first face to face meeting, if I have anything to do with it. 🙂

  8. Suzanna says:

    I feel the same way as sleighs79 – the virtual community has reached me in areas of my life where I just didn’t know anyone else going though the same things or having the same interests. I do realize the virtual community is often only showing the best of people and not always the complete realness of their lives, but they can offer encouragement and a feeling of comradity that would otherwise be absent. I have been so thankful for the words written on my computer screen time and time again. And for mothers of young children or homeschooled children, the virtual community offers a way to connect that might otherwise be impossible. I personally feel some of my greatest encouragers/ teachers have been people I will never know and who probably don’t even know I am reading their words on a blog. And for the same reason that I treasure a good book, the written word has power to touch people’s lives even when the person reading doesn’t know the person writing.

    But with that being said, I do think our country has lost that sense of community that once was – the one of knowing your neighbors and of your social life centering around your church because it meant being with others. It is so easy to hide in a crowd now that you have to make a consious effort to be part of community – it doesn’t just happen any more. And sometimes people just need human contact and touch that can’t be found on a screen.

    But I do believe the virtual community is a very real community that touches many lives and gives human contact that might otherwise be missing.

  9. Melissa @ the pleated polka dot says:

    I think we have to be careful that we don’t fall into the illusion of community and the illusion of doing good via the Internet and forget to actually build relationships with those around us. We need “real life” community. We need to nurture those around us. Reach out to our neighbors. Yes the Internet is great. I’m all for it. I comment and email and encourage every chance I get. But it should never take the place of being present in our own communities.

  10. For the last four-ish years my husband and I have had little to none local community. This is happening for a variety of reasons I’m not wanting/not at liberty to discuss at this point in our journey. God has provided some great friends over social media (blog & twitter) and I’ve met in real life some of those I call friend. And as much as I would call some of these friendships community, I’ve learned that not having local community is like going without water.

    It is incredibly heart wrenching at times, especially on weekends. Because there are times I’d love to call my best friend – who I met through blogging & who lives in a completely different state – and say let’s go to dinner or grab coffee or grab drinks.

    So for me while I do consider online community a form of community because there are people there that keep me accountable, I’ve learned that can never take the place of in real life, local community.

  11. First of all, thanks for the shout-out, friend. You encourage me often in ways you don’t even know.
    As to community, I’ve just finished my thesis yesterday and in my acknowledgments I make mention of Deeper Story and its community as being part of what has helped shape me exegetically to complete this project. And that’s been no small thing. Indeed, when I blog I feel like I’m inviting people to my table to sit with them and chat. It’s my style and feel.
    But there is something that cannot be had online, which is church. And I may put my foot in it here, because I’m not going to belabor my explanation or give a lot of reason why, but I think that the concept of online church misses the point altogether. I think exceptions are possible but, on the whole, an online community cannot replace the sacramental reality of embodied faith in the presence of others. And that is needed.

  12. pastordt says:

    As with so many things in this life, I think your question requires a both/and kind of answer, Seth. Because I am in an unusual position in life just now (retired from pastoring but still worshiping in the same community), I have found my online connections a welcome addition to a life that has changed shape dramatically since Jan 1 2011. Some of these online friends I have been blessed to meet in person and for that I am so grateful!

    But I will say that I have found writing via email/blog comments to be rich, rewarding and real. Before I retired, I was already using email as part of my own pastoral ministry, exchanging heartfelt letters, prayers and life experiences with friends, family and parishioners. I actually began to do that when health issues forced a leave of absence in 2002 and I was too tired physically to meet in person with people. I learned to write real stuff back then and I pretty much still do that. I have even sent some limited financial help to people and causes as a result of my online contacts, adding another layer to the community experience.

    No, it is not the same thing as walking a meal over to a person’s home in the midst of either joyful or sorrowful times, but it is a small piece of the puzzle. I still need to be in community with other living, breathing people I can see and touch – and for me, spiritual direction (which is one on one) has been a good entree into that part of my own journey at this later stage of life. I will travel to Chicago in 10 days to be part of a team (and lead writer) for a prayer retreat experience. This will be a one-of kind of community experience and I have several layers of that kind of community, too. We belong to a small group that meets monthly and a supper group that is more introductory that also meets monthly. We’re piecing it together as we go these days – but I would not trade the connections I’ve made out here in cyber space at all. For me, they are life-giving just now.

    I think the Spirit is up to something just now, weaving all these kinds of interaction together into a new kind of community life. I love what (in)courage is doing this month – although it is limited to women, which I get – but sometimes regret, too. And I love what’s happening at A Deeper Story – my goodness sakes, i love that. God can redeem anything and anyone – and that includes the internet. :>) You’re a piece of that redemption, Seth – you and Amber and Joy and Scott with your call to honesty and commitment in marriage. It’s good stuff, it’s important stuff and we need it. So – long answer: both/and. Yes.

  13. Ron says:

    Your quote from Henry Nouwen pretty much says it all . Having said that , considering how many people use Facebook , it is sad to many how many lonely people are out there . The question to me is why ?

  14. micksilva says:

    Wow. Nouwen pegged me. I’ll do whatever it takes not to be alone.

    I have to ask why…?

    Maybe community is more fun than being alone with God?

    Real or virtual, I think community only helps (me and others) in what it reveals about God. And if separation from him is the danger, separation from the community must come first. As the temptations proliferate to trade relating with him for communing with others, I need powerful encouragement to break away and be alone with God….

    Thanks for the grist.

    Mick

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