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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Yesterday, an editorial from Leonard Pitts got me talking over at FB about why I value my online friendships. Since this is something that some of you care deeply about, I thought Id throw it up here as well. Thoughts?

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Usually I agree with Leonard Pitts. He’s a smart man who writes with intellectual and moral courage on issues that matter to me. But on the issue of social media friendships being somehow less real, I have to disagree.

Pitts is talking about the case out in San Francisco, where someone got shot on a subway and no one even saw the gun until after the murder. His basic point is we’re all so lost in our own worlds we don’t reach out to the people standing next to us. Trouble is, I’ve seen similar scenes (not the gun, but everyone stuck in their own little world) on the NYC subways. No internet there so some people were on cell phones, but most were buried behind newspapers. Some were just “resting their eyelids” out of sheer exhaustion. I can imagine a train car full of this, without the social media entering into it.

The flip side: for me, social media has been great for bringing people together. I’ve reconnected with family and seen pictures of my cousins’ kids, whereas a generation that would have been a once-a-year kind of thing. I’ve maintained relationships with old friends from undergrad. And I’ve got friends I’ve known for going on a decade and who I love dearly, though we’ve never met face to face. People who I am better suited to and who I have more in common with than people I know from my offline life.

You have to work at those relationships just like any other, and they have weaknesses as well as strengths. But the medium is not the problem – it’s self-centeredness and an inability to connect with others, no matter what the method of communication. I may not chat up people I bump into on the bus as much, but given the way *good* online relationships can work, I consider that more than a fair tradeoff.

(Of course, we must also keep our eyes open to those around us. A car full of rush hour commuters should have seen a gun being waved around, if only out of self-protection. Obviously. But that would be just as true if they were reading the Post as if they were playing Angry Birds.)

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
aearwen2
Oct. 13th, 2013 11:49 pm (UTC)
It's very easy to blame something else for people being self-absorbed and not noticing - or not wanting to get involved in preventing - a crime happening right in front of them. Computers and technology are the easy scapegoats nowadays; we've all heard about how video games exacerbate violence, or how TV shows and movies make sex into a commodity.

It's much harder to take a good, hard look at one's own inner dialogue and see that, no, one really didn't want to try to interfere or even admit to oneself that a crime was happening right there in front of one. And why? Because one is afraid of getting hurt too? Because of the many ways society almost penalizes those who get in the middle of matters that don't otherwise pertain to them?

Internet obsession, video game addiction and other similar psychological phenomena are very real. But they can't carry all the blame. Self responsibility for "not wanting to get involved" - however one feels one needs to behave to accomplish that, from ignoring the situation entirely to simply not paying attention - is much harder to own up to.

My online friends are very important to me. In some ways, they know me better than many of my Real Life™ friends do. And the Internet - with Facebook, LiveJournal, and other venues - has been a great way to re-establish communications with otherwise far-flung relatives and friends/acquaintances. It has its place in our society, whether some like it or not.

I think this fellow has lost sight of the main point, which is that all too many people nowadays simply don't want to engage fully in their surroundings. Period. End of statement. How they accomplish that end can include technology or not, but the result is the same. Like you said, the attention could just as easily be held by an article in the NY Times as on an iPhone screen with Angry Birds playing.
marta_bee
Oct. 14th, 2013 12:24 am (UTC)
You know, I do what he's talking about. Whenever I'm in public I tend to pull out something to read or do so I don't have to engage with the people around me. That's also because i'm genuinely interested in what I'm reading and want to spend the time that way, but sometimes I use it to distance myself and not see the people around me. I like to think even I'd notice a gun being waved about. Especially on the subway; that's just general self-protection, even if it's not driven by concern for others. But I get what he's concerned about.

The thing is, as you say, I really don't think the thing captivating us is the problem. It's the fact that we're drawn into our own little worlds. I guess I just get comments like his line, something is lost when human connectivity, human society, human intercourse, are reduced to pixels on a screen and everybody is looking down. This idea that pixels are somehow more artificial than the faces we present to different people in RL, that an IM chat is somehow less human than chat with friends or acquaintances at the corner bar, just rubs me the wrong way. I'd say that if social media is reducing friendships to pixels, the problem probably isn't in the social media but in how you're using it.
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