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virtual vs. offline communities

Over at SoJo, Christine Sine asked about the relationship between online and offline communities. Sojourners is a Christian site focused on social justice, so it is not perhaps surprising that Ms. Sine is focusing on this from a religious standpoint. As she wrote,

Does social media and our interaction on the internet strengthen or weaken faith? Are we deluding ourselves by thinking this is a God given medium or are we appropriately taking advantage of the cultural tools God has made available?

For me, the question is more immediate. Does it help or hurt us make human connection? I thought some of you might be interested in my answer (slightly expanded from what I posted at SoJo, but only slightly; I'm leaving religious jargon more or less in tact, and I hope it doesn't jar too much).


I think the first question needs to be, why is a person using virtual communities rather than flesh-and-blood communities? The answer will tell us a lot about a person's motive, and the holiness of the medium in that moment for that individual, I think.

I am an introvert, and it takes me a while to warm up to people. I am also a student (currently a Ph.D. student) which means that every 2-4 years for the last decade of my life I have packed up my stuff and moved to a new city where I am surrounded by other similarly transient young adults. There's another reason in my case for why I gravitate toward exclusively-online relationships: I have a learning disorder which makes it hard for me to pick up nonverbal cues. Online, I can be confident that I'm not missing the signal, and I find I am actually much less introverted than I am in my offline life - to the result that I have gotten comfortable with the "real" me and am more authentic online and off.

While I love the friends I have found in my physical community, I am even closer to people who have known me longer. For obvious reasons - I've known them longer, and they know more of what I have been through. I know these people virtually - in my case, from an online community of fanfic writers. And I can think of nothing more holy than nurturing those relationships, helping them through trials and depending on them myself.

I can think of many reasons why other people might choose offline relationships. Maybe they are elderly or ill and it isn't easy for them to get out - but they can call someone on the phone or IM them or (God forbid!) friend their children on Facebook. :-) All of that is an online-offline hybrid. But what if they met a person at a cruise ten years ago, a friend who they have not seen in person in the interim but they now communicate with online? What if it's solely the e-version of a pen pal? Those relationships can take on emotional significance, too? Or what about people driven by a rather odd hobby or interest to find people who are passionate like them? Take the recent HP movie - if I loved it an wanted to discuss it with other fans rather than annoying my friend, over time I could really get to know them. I've seen it happen. It's happened with me, though not with HP.

These relationships are real, so much so that many people I know tend to prefer the phrase "offline life" to "real life" - the latter has a connotation that *on*line life is unreal. And it's not.

On the other hand, I know there are some people who use online identities for something unholy. The KKK flourishes online. Islamicists and their Christian (secularist, Jewish, Hindu, etc.) equivalent thrive online. When you don't have a real relationship - when you're just a name - it's easy to treat the person on the other end of the interwebz as just a name as well. I mean, not as a real person worthy of dignity.

It also can give us (more) complete control in how we present themselves, which can get pretty close to lying at times, even in the nonobvious way. I mean, we all hear the jokes about how every hot 17-year-old girl is really a balding middle-age overweight man who drives a Volvo. But what about when I say I'm an introvert (which I believe) - is that really who I am? How other people perceive me? Online you have to describe yourself, whereas offline people can do more observing of the unconscious ways you present yourself.

Some people use the internet to give them distance, avoid a certain emotional intimacy. (Because you can choose to reply to an email right away or put it off for weeks - it lets you hold people at arms' length.) And most significantly, there really is no substitute for the warmth of human touch. In some cases the internet can be a prop, and an unhealthy one; but in others it can be a Godsend.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 18th, 2011 08:30 pm (UTC)
A very good way of putting it.

Before I moved, I had friendships and acquaintances in my everyday life that I could know shared common interests with me: I worked in a craft store, so most of my co-workers shared my own interests in crafts; I had a very strong local chapter of the SCA, in which I was a long-time member; there were people with whom I had interacted when I was working in the school system; and I had attended church at the same place for nearly 30 years and had many friends there of my own age and stage of life. That was in ADDITION to my many online friends, quite a few of whom I have gone on to eventually meet in person, but I knew them ONLINE FIRST!

Now I have moved to a small town where I have very little in common with most of my co-workers. I am too far from the nearest SCA chapter. Most of the friends I've made at church are at least a generation older than I am. Plus, this town is so small that if you are not related to someone here you tend to be on the short end of most conversations. So now most of my friends are online, and I keep up with my friends from before the same way.

And I also know this: while there are some imposters out there on the internet, it doesn't preclude the friendships you make online from being REAL friendships. It's possible to know imposters in everyday life as well-- just think of all those neighbors of serial killers who had "no idea"!

Jul. 19th, 2011 02:28 am (UTC)
I don't like the term "real life" for offline . The friends I have made are real as are the feelings involved.

yes,there are phonies out there but I've had more hassle from people around me.

I can't get out very much and the Net is a lifeline to me.

I think it is how you use anything that makes it good or bad, after all books can bring help or harm to people as can food even!
Jul. 19th, 2011 02:49 pm (UTC)
I think I understand linda's objection to using the term "real life" for offline. A great many of the people whom I've met online, whether via writing communities or other online communities with which I have connections, are every bit as "real" and important in my life as those with whom I have "face-to-face" relationships. Some of those online friends have become "face-to-face" friends, and some represent re-connection or continuation of older friendships where time and physical distance make meeting face-to-face difficult.

People don't believe it when I tell them that I'm really shy, because what I do, both for work and in connection with the worship ministry at my church, means that I must, perforce, interact with large numbers of people - definitely outside my comfort zone! Yet I'm grateful that I am forced to operate outside that comfort zone, because there are so many wonderful people - and experiences - that I would have otherwise missed.

That being said, I'm also grateful for the online communities, where there are friends who have encouraged me and helped see me through some tough seasons of my life. No question but that the Net can be a real lifeline, especially when one hasn't the option of getting out to interact in the physical world, or when distance makes such interactions impossible.

For myself, not having that kind of physical limitation, I try to not let online interactions take the place of, but rather to enjoy them in addition to, those "face-to-face" relationships. I know someone who is using online "social networking" as a substitute, and it's really troubling me, because I don't think it's healthy to cut oneself off from physical interactions. I know, because the temptation to do just that is always with me, to hide away and never risk poking my head outside.

As linda said, it's how you use anything that makes it good or bad.

Thanks for a thought provoking post.

Edited at 2011-07-19 02:50 pm (UTC)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )



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