Virtual Friendship

by

Let’s begin with a reasonably safe prediction: you are not likely to finish this article. That is not merely because of the prose of the author (though I concede it doesn’t help). It is based on reliable statistics that indicate how attention spans have shortened.

It may be an exaggeration to suggest, as The Atlantic Monthly provocatively proposed a few months ago, that Google is making Americans stupid. But the internet giant and its coconspirators are rendering us more restless, and, as in the title of Maggie Jackson’s recent book, distracted. In our digital age, focused attention is made more difficult. Multitasking fragments our thinking, and moments of reflection are punctured by the urgent text message. Concentration drifts after a few paragraphs, and we have lost the art of deep and thoughtful reading.

We are all reasonably computer literate by now. Technologically enhanced social networking via cell phones, email, blogging, twitter, or whatever is next are unavoidable features of our electronic landscape. We have come to accept the reality of them with little reflection. Beyond our atrophied reading habits, the effect of our social networking world is at least twofold: it trivializes the notion of friendship and it erodes our sense of community.

I have a colleague who has 1,035 Facebook friends. By Facebook standards, that is probably unremarkable. At the same time, of course, it is also a lie. Friendship is humanly impossible on such a mass scale. What results is exhibitionistic too-much-information for most: your colonoscopy this morning is really not my business. Meanwhile, those who are genuinely close to you wonder why they learned of the death of your mother from your twitter that instantly informed untold masses.

However Facebook may claim to “manage” our friends, we simply cannot keep track of such volumes. I have accumulated more than I can handle, at least 400, a quarter of whom I have never met. (On at least a couple of occasions, I confirmed a friendship with a perfect stranger fully convinced the person was somebody else.) Above all, no one can assume the expense of these associations. As Maggie Jackson observed, Facebook friends do not increase the number of folk to whom one is prepared to donate a kidney.

I have fallen into the habit of closing emails to friends I have not seen in years with words to the effect that “I hope our paths cross soon.” This has become a cliché that I am trying to eliminate. But it illustrates the truism that friendship demands real contact. Electronic culture separates as it disembodies. The paradox is that it links us to folk far away while it separates those from whom we are closest. We are increasingly isolated even as we make the false boast that we have overcome time and distance and “reconnected.”

The superficiality of these technologies is demonstrated by the proliferation of e-conflict. Scarcely anyone who has been on email has not experienced a serious miscommunication, even with an old friend. I have made what I thought were extremely clever online jokes, only to be accused of “flaming” because my humor lacked the non-verbal messaging to couch it in the proper context. Is it any wonder, therefore, that our Lord in Matthew 18 commands reconciliation through direct, face-to-face engagement?

Even worse, social networking has transformed friendship into a commodity. We collect friends in our desire to build status. Online personalities (even to the point of multiple identities and gender-bending) are carefully constructed as we crave the attention we hope it stirs. Christine Rosen has observed that the Socratic imperative to “know thyself” is altered in cyber culture to “show thyself.” Here there is little shame. (One acquaintance of mine used his Facebook status in order to chronicle his writer’s block.) Even the novelty of it all sinks in the vast ocean of pointless public diarists. Rosen describes Facebook as “an overwhelmingly dull place of monotonous uniqueness, of conventional individuality, of distinctive sameness.”

The hours we spend on such things leaves less time to engage in thoughtful correspondence with genuine friends. Why go through the time and effort to hand write and post a letter when you can “poke” dozens of friends? And cyberflowers are a lot cheaper than the real thing. Eventually, friendship becomes a competition: when will I crack the “Fave 5” on my friend’s cell phone service?

In all of these examples, friendship is cheapened when reduced to utilitarian purposes. Can we even recognize genuine friendship after all? Unlike family (including one’s church family) or neighbor (whom we are commanded to love and serve), friendship is premised on distinctive grounds. It entails choice (you do not choose family or neighbor), and it demands high levels of trust, respect, and privacy. In short, friendship has to cost something to be genuine.

Last week, in the course of a workrelated email exchange with a young woman, I discovered that she was the niece of an old friend of mine. “I cannot wait to tell my uncle that we connected!” she wrote back. Her expression gave me pause. Is that what we did? And what does it mean, after all, to “connect?” Are we now friends? Facebook aligns friends of friends (of friends) based on thin affinity, either real or perceived. It is a fluidity of drive-by relationships. Maybe there was a reason, after all, for your college roommate to lose contact with you over the course of the past two decades. Perhaps you were not really connected in the first place.

I do not wish to deny that there are some legitimate uses of social networking. This morning I was gladdened to learn from Facebook that my long-suffering Tabletalk editor, Chris Donato, is a proud father of his second healthy baby boy. (Hmm, perhaps that will distract him from noticing that my submission remains overdue.) Facebook may be a means of assisting established contacts; but can it create and maintain relationships that are otherwise unsustainable? That seems to raise two more questions: are these connections really necessary, and more importantly, do they compete with your non-facebook friends? The internet giveth, and it taketh away.

Defenders of social networking eagerly promote its promise to regenerate lost community, to heal the fractures of our fast-forward paced lives. Nowhere is this claim more confidently made than in churches today, whose craving for members mirrors the individual’s tally of friends. It is astonishing to consider how desperately churches are trying to get wired. “Ministers of Technology” set out to build community through the internet. One pace-setting church assures skeptics that it is not interested in replacing face-to-face connections with virtual ones. But that is exactly what it will do. Plenty of studies indicate that internet connectedness comes at the expense of non-virtual relationships. A family left my church recently after complaining about its lack of fellowship opportunities. The session racked its brain over this complaint, because it seemed that the family was failing to avail itself of plenty of social opportunities in the church. Finally the mother confessed that she craved a fellowship “where I can Facebook chat all day like I do with my homeschooling network.”

Shane Hipps writes in his Flickering Pixels: “Digital social networking inoculates people against the desire to be physically present with others in real social networks — networks like a church or a meal at someone’s home.” Why the messiness of real interaction when you can login to worship? In an online church, there is no assembly required!

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, numbers among the cyberchurch’s skeptics. Church attendance genuinely diversifies, but the homogeneity of the virtual world is a cyberapartheid that masquerades as community. In Putnam’s words, the internet is “unlikely in itself to reverse the deterioration of our social capital.”

Contrary to the inconvenience and inefficiency of genuine community, virtual communities have the advantage of allowing one to leave as easily as one joined. Disappearing can be as simple as not responding to an email. (Who among us is prepared to cast the first cyberstone at someone who got buried under his email inbox?) Or there is a one-click means of “unfriending” a cyberpest. With these exit strategies, social networks are less communities than lifestyle enclaves. One sociologist has aptly described them as “networked individualism.” Individualism and consumerism were not invented by the internet, of course. But the internet allows these dynamics to flourish and to dominate our social arrangements.

So our challenge is to reckon with the multitasking, split-screen, ringtone culture of the internet. Calvin College’s Quentin Schulze encourages us to distinguish between good and bad “habits of the high-tech heart.” Technological restraint is good for the soul, the mind, and the church. We need to reshape our environment to enlarge our attention spans and deepen our commitments to friends and community.

You made a small start by finishing this article. Now read the next. Then write a letter to a friend. Texting or blogging is cheating.

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