fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

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.
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