Can we build relationships by being vitually connected?
Over the past few weeks I have had conversations with a colleague of mine regarding the difference between connections and relationships, and how relationships are needed to build trust in youth ministry. One of the things we have begun to do is reach out to youth via Facebook and other social media avenues to begin the process of making a connection with the youth of our community. And knowing that middle school and high school students are most easily reached (outside of church) by digital means, I have begun to read Digitial Disciple by Adam Thomas. Thomas, according to his bio on the back of the book, is an Episcopal priest and a "self-described nerd".
In chapter two of the book, he describes a virtual funeral that occurred within the World of War-Craft after a friend of many who play the game died in a car accident. Adam wrote:
But they all connected in the virtual world of the game. They created a virtual community at a virtual place... even in the virtual world, communion happens.
My question now is: can we really build relationships through the online connections we make? If we can, how do these relationships differ from those we create through face-to-face interaction, where we can hide behind the computer screen? For me, it is much easier to hide my non-verbal facial expressions when I am writing on my laptop and not sharing a conversation over a cup of coffee, and I would argue that for most of us this is the case.
In a world consumed by status updates and messages limited to 140 characters, are we limiting our ability to build relationships by adding restraints to our connections? Thomas told the story of a friend's sister who felt alone and isolated after she moved to New York City.
In a city of eight million people, she felt horribly alone!
The twenty-year old intern, in her sublet apartment, was distraught beyond counsel from her parents. It was not until her cable company connected her to the outside world via the internet did the feeling of isolation fade away.
I can remember back to my undergraduate studies at West Virginia Wesleyan to the beginning of my senior year when the campus network went down for multiple days due to over 200 computer viruses descending upon the harddrives and servers of campus (ask Allison how and why it happened). For what seemed like an eternity, we were without instant messaging, Facebook, and email. There we were, in the middle of West Virginia, cut off from everyone, even our neighbor down the hall.
In the neighborhood where Allison and I live we have a community Facebook group. The purpose of the group was for the BoD to disseminate information quickly to the community. However the online forum has now turned to a place where neighbors communicate openly and freely with one another (although the most popular topic is literally dog poo). There is one catch: the majority of the people on my street sprint into their homes when getting out of their cars and avoid face-to-face interaction with one another. I can count the number of times I have spoken to the woman in the house next to me on one hand. She does not answer her door. When she arrives home in the evening she drives into the garage, closes the door, and then gets out of her car.
I look to the example provided by Thomas, my experience at WVWC, and my neighborhood as an indicator that we (Facebook connected, over tweeters) are losing the ability to connect with people for the purpose of building real relationships. When we form relationships we can counsel someone after a loss or congratulate them after a success. Are we really able to do this genuinely via wires and keyboards? Or are we called to are more "connected" community where interaction is done person to person and not Mac to PC?
Thomas eludes to the fact that yes, everyone is my neighbor. And that because of Christ's response to the lawyer in Luke 10, that I should show mercy and to my neighbor, even those I form a connection with online are my neighbor. I will buy into this idea with one change, that these connections do not result in relationships. And, for me, relationships are what allow us to discover more about another human being that we will never find out via the "Tech" (Thomas's term for "the internet and the hose of other technological advances of the last fifty years").
I am able to form relationships with classmates because I see them in class weekly and we are given the opportunity to dive deeper into a relationship rather than always focusing on the superficial "hi, how are ya'?" "Tech" conversations.
I was able to form relationships with those i met at the McKenna Center last year because I actually visited the center and did not just read about it online.
Our connectedness via "Tech" is great for staying in touch or sharing pictures of cute cats. This connectedness does not build relationships and can actually hamper the formation of community outside the servers and infrastructure I am relying on right now to share my thoughts with you.