Hey Man Slow Down: The Art of Friendship Behind The Screen IV

I need to finish this series of four articles on Technology and how its affecting our lives in positive and negative ways before it gets away from me. When I first sat down to write about all of this it was because of a couple of prompts; my reading the Time Magazine article on multitasking and teenagers, my reading a book I had just finished by Joseph Grassi and an experience I had on the train. As I have been writing and thinking about all this, there was one last topic I felt I need to bring up: friendship in the technological age.


The Time Article aks this question,

If you're IMing four friends while watching That '70s Show, it's not the same as sitting on the couch with your buddies or your sisters and watching the show together. Or sharing a family meal across a table. Thousands of years of evolution created human physical communication–facial expression, body language–that puts broadband to shame in its ability to convey meaning and concrete bonds. What happens…as we replace side-by-side and eye-to-eye human connections with quick, disembodied exchanges?

Though I think this statement is leaning a bit too far on the negative side of the discussion, the question is still worth asking. What is the difference between 'real' and 'virtual' relationships (when I say real I mean a physical face-to-face friendship, I don't mean that online/virtual friendships can't be real in an authentic way)? What are the advantages and disadvantages of both? There are certainly some negative implications for behind-the-screen-only friendships but let's not demonize it either. We need to learn how these tools are useful in cultivating meaningful relationships, and cultivate the kinds of behaviors that continue to encourage teens in relationships that are healthy; whether they are virtual or 'real' is only secondary.

The Church and Technological Communication

Steve Johnson's “Viewpoint” in Time, was much more optimistic and realistic when he said,

Is all this screen time diminishing the kids' face-to-face social skills? Hardly. Remember, the total number of hours spent in front of a screen has not increased over the past 10 years. Teenagers are irrepressibly social animals; its in their DNA. They're not using the technology to replace their real-world social life; they're using technology to augment it.

Churches tend to fear and push away anything new that threatens the status quo, or challenges our control over the lives of those in the congregation. This is why many youth pastors are beside themselves over social networking sites like myspace, Friendster, Orkut, and Facebook. Of course there is reason for concern, when those places are used in ways that abuse other people, but this may be even more reason for the church to have its own myspace pages and be involved in social networks. I don't really like myspace, I don't use it, in fact I try not to use it but I am forced to go to my myspace account at least once a day because people use it to communicate with me in one form or another. Myspace is hard to avoid, even if you try because there are at least 43 million people on myspace making it a social force in the lives of a lot of people.

IMing and e-mail offer yet more ways to get connected and stay connected to people. No form of communication is as good as actual face-to-face conversation, but many of us do not have the luxury to be face-to-face all the time. The informality that is involved with IMing and e-mail is also very useful in communicating at times.  In terms of doing youth ministry, and using technology for getting to know teens things like myspace, AIM, blogging, and e-mail are all ways that can create informal relationships with teens; teenagers especially want to have space to get to know people, especially adults. These newer forms of communicating give us ways to see pictures, get to know some basic stuff, and learn a little about others without feeling like your in some kind of committed friendship. I think that people, especially those within the church, need to be versed in using these forms of communicating with others.  

Adding and Taking Away

There are downfalls to all of this, I don't want to pretend that there aren't, but the most dangerous one is trading 'real' friendships for the virtual ones. We should use e-mail to supplement our real relationships, and for building friendships with people in other parts of the world. But if I spend 10 hours this week chatting online, blogging, and doing whatever people do on myspace, and only 2 hours hanging out with my friends who live near me I think that a perversion has arisen. I realize this is a different perspective than some, but I find things like myspace, AIM, e-mail best when they are tools for supplementing friendships not replacing them. Its always best to keep in mind, the more we add to our lives them more other things get neglected or taken away. I've talked about this more fully in part two of this series.

Practices of Friendship, Access and Boundary


Today all people, not just Christians, need to focus on practices that cultivate healthy lives, technology can both aid or harm in this pursuit. We need to practice friendship in both its 'real' and 'virtual' forms, but for some of us (and as time progresses more and more of us) will need to focus more intentionally on face-to-face friendships as a means of knowing and being known. People isolated from physical communities of friends will not be able to find the depth of possibilities for their own life because we were created to live in community with one another, “Let us create them in our own image (Gen. 1:27);” online friendships can be a part of this but it will never help anyone it if totally replaces it.

Finally The last comment I wanted to make is that increasingly we will need to work out how much we will allow ourselves to be accessed, what kinds of boundaries do we need to live healthy lives? I don't know yet, but I do know that when I turn off my computer and my phone there is a freedom and rest that I find. We all need to have some boundaries from these things, what those boundaries are or should be will have to be worked out in community.

It barks at no else but me
Like it's seen a ghost
I guess it seen the sparks a-flowing
No one else would know

Hey man, slow down
Slow down
Idiot, slow down
Slow down

Sometimes I get overcharged
That's when you see sparks
You ask me where the hell i'm going?
At a thousand feet per second

Hey man, slow down
Slow down
Idiot, slow down
slow down
Hey man, slow down
Slow down
Idiot, slow down
slow down

Radiohead – the Tourist

**And speaking of AIM – you can reach me on it at gatheringinlight if you have any questions about what I've written here.

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Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

8 thoughts on “Hey Man Slow Down: The Art of Friendship Behind The Screen IV”

  1. Hey!

    This is an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about. At one point I was really associating it with the belief that some cultures hold that a camera will “steal your soul” – which resonates with me much more now that I’ve done “relationships” over email and in person, and know more about the complexities of the difference. Technological representations “steal” parts of us – but it’s not noticeable (and probably, mostly, we get them back when we move back into “real life” – I’m not sure)

    I had a romantic relationship that was conducted mostly over email (it was long distance, among other complications). It was a mess in many ways, but I frequently wondered if various fights could have been avoided if we were face to face – or even on the phone. I really think it would have. In my current relationship we exchange silly emails throughout the day, but if a remotely serious topic comes up, we simply agree to talk about it in person as soon as possible.

    I think connections are strange. I have made friends over the internet, but only one with whom I became “in person” friends after a lengthy internest connection. They are definitely shallow in a certain way. I have a friend who is currently in an internet “relationship” with someone whom he met online and has never talked to even on the phone, and yet seems to be thinking of more and more as his lover. I’m a little worried about him

    On the other hand, I am pretty shy, and was really shy as a child. that was before email, but I had lots of penpals. My mom was constantly urging me to make friends in my own community, but I was too scared. At that point in my life, if I hadn’t had pen pals, I simply would have been much lonelier. I have come to suspect that many people who spend lots of time on internet message boards have some form of mental illness (and it’s surprising how often I eventually learn that this is true) – certainly not everyone, but I think it’s a ‘safer’ place for people with trouble with social skills, or shyness, or whatever. It’s a tricky line to walk between using this “safe space” to grow into being able to be social in “real life” and using it as a way to hide from “real life” permanently.

    I have been nudged to think a bit more about “gospel order” by recent posts on various blogs. I suppose I am framing this question to myself as “what would it be like if the kingdom of god was fully realized on earth, right now?” I don’t think we’d use computers much. I think we’d be digging in the dirt, growing food, hugging each other, having potlucks or bonfires, making things, etc. I don’t think that means that to be faithful we should give them up now. I think it needs to grow, it’s not there yet,

    but I’m not sure.

    peace
    Pam

  2. Pam, thanks for your really thoughtful comment. I appreciate that you brought in real-life stories that bring out some of the real issues with relationships in this age. I agree with you that its better for us to not rely on these things, and that our first goal should be in the earth. Everything we have, and do must be tempered by our call to be followers of Christ and people who love our neighbors. We can do this “behind the screen” but real love and faithfulness is best played out face-to-face.

    This is part of the problem with trying to have relationships online. I am not suggesting people shouldn’t do it, though it rarely seems to work out that well (or be very healthy), but I think its a unique situation if it does work out. We were made for interaction, physical touch, and these other forms can lead to a lack of these things if we let it.

    How do you see these things (online stuff) helping (both in follow Christ and in being in relationships), from your own experiences that you talked about above?

  3. Wess-

    Thanks for your “queries” – I don’t actually tend to frame my spiritual life in terms of “christ”, though I’m starting to get more comfortable with the terminology.

    I suppose the only “gift” I see in this sort of technology (and it’s a significant one) is the opportunity for connection where it didn’t really exist before

    This, as I said, can be about people who don’t have the social skills, or the mobility, to get out and connect with people face to face.

    It can also be about, say, quakers, who are a pretty small religious body, and can feel like they have no “fellow travellers” on their spiritual journeys, and widening the range of people that we can talk to can help with that.

    But overall, I wonder. I also find myself “hiding” behind the relative anonymity of it all. Last Sunday, a friend and meeting said “hey, great post about the sweatlodge!” to me during fellowship and I felt all shy and weird. This is a person with whom I’ve had plenty of great conversations, I am not afraid or shy of him, but somehow I had allowed my blogging self to become an “alternate personality” or something – and reconciling it with my “real life” was a little awkward and shocking.

    I’m not sure at all what I think about online community for kids. I know most of those I know are very into it. and I dont’ know if it actually adds anything to real life connections.

    As I said, I email my sweetie a few times a day. It’s nice to have that ongoing contact, and it keeps me from getting bored at work, but does it actually do anything to improve our relationship? Might there be some benefit in missing each other for a whole 10 hours, so we appreciate it all the more when we are actually together again? I’m not sure.

    And, when our email goes down, I actually walk around the office and talk to my coworkers more – because I’m hungry for human contact, I guess, and it’s a higher quality human contact.

    It’s a tricky thing to say..

    Pam

  4. Pam, Thanks so much for the dialogue. I am fine with you not being comfortable in “christ” language and I believe we can still have a meaningful conversation about these issues regardless, as long as you are okay with the fact that I am comfortable with this line of thinking.

    I think that many of these things I wrestling with are rooted in the fact that I consider myself a disciple of Jesus. For instance, in the Gospels he valued so highly face-to-face interaction with people, especially those often rejected by the more “acceptable” people in society.

    I wonder if dialoguing over the web gives us new opportunities in doing this? As you said,

    I suppose the only “gift??? I see in this sort of technology (and it’s a significant one) is the opportunity for connection where it didn’t really exist before

    .

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I wonder how we as a community of faith can embody these “christ-like” practices of carrying for others in this manner. This may be the main “gift” as you say in the whole thing.

    A thougth I have is that all of this communicating, blogging, chatting online, must not be an end in itself. But it most aimed at foster relationships, aimed at caring for the other. As you have experience with the blogging-self and the “real” self we can easily hide behind the screen. I can resonate with you here, as I have battled with the same awkwardness at times. One thing we need to do (I am speaking to those of us who have “faith” and/or are Quakers), is continually be honest in our online personality and consistent.

    I wrote that extremely long article on blogging for religion recently. While writing it I realized that as people in a faith community we need to invite people from our community to join us in our online conversation. In other words I am working on inviting the 150 people that attend our church, especially the 20 or so that I am good friends with to subscribe to my blog in order to join in on this conversation. Not just that though, but keep me focused on those things that I really do care about and those things that I, when I am my real self, really talk about.

    I think this will help us learn how to cultivate community online, but also how to be focused on the greater possibilities it offers in our everyday life.

    on a sidenote, I am with you I love to write my wife emails all through the work day, its so fun! And I really like you idea about keeping debatle issues to the face-to-face interactions.

  5. Hi Wess

    Sorry it’s taken me a while to get back, I’ve been into reading, but not writing, of late….

    I’ve been sitting with the issue of my relationship with “Christ” since starting this conversation. I think I can think of myself as a follower of Christ (but not exclusively) but not a worshipper. The phrase “our call to be followers of Christ” makes perfect sense to me, although what proceeds from it, for me, might look strange to most who call themselves followers of Christ.

    Anyway, I am still not clear about the religious (spiritual) value of blogging, or really of any technology.

    When I think about how great we all think it is to engage in this exchange (and I do too, often) I also think, why do I so rarely sit with the people I know (including Liz, of the Good Raised Up) in my living room, and talk about this face to face?) Liz and I were at a friend’s birthday party about a month and a half ago, where the conversation turned to the meaning of God, and what we are called to as a meeting, and as quakers, and what deepening means, and faith and atheism, and I think it was really exciting for some of us (thankfully including the birthday girl) but others were a little baffled.

    I also have a concern that blogging disrupts the flow of human conversation – I write out a lot of stuff, maybe taking breaks to make myself tea (which you don’t actually experience as breaks) and then maybe a week later, you write something. I think there can be value, in the seasoning of it, for example, but I also feel like there’s an inherent artificiality that I’m not entirely comfortable with.

    Also, perhaps even more importantly, most of us blog ABOUT faith, it’s somewhere between a journal (like a diary) and a mini-treatise on whatever topic has been bopping around in our spirits or lives…

    For example right now I am (still) processing the emotional fallout of the bad relationship I mentioned earlier, I am worrying about my mom, who has dementia and lives half a country away currently, in a nursing home, and we never had a very good relationship, so it’s even harder, I think, and, well, you know, life, which I think is integral to spirituality. So, there is a personal aspect, that isn’t there with, say, pamphlets, and yet it’s sanitized somehow, and impersonal. Does that make any sense??

  6. Pam, thanks for the continued conversation on this matter.

    I guess I see the value of blogging and technology only in so far as it points us toward real and better relationships. It can’t be an end in itself, as I’ve alluded to before, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

    People do blog for many reasons, maybe your’s tends to be more personal, while others try to write more articles, I don’t know. I like a mixture of both I guess.

    I do think of it as a modern day pamphlet of sorts. I mean think of all the Quakers blogging, imagine if we could turn this outward to help shape and reshape our world the way pamphlet’s were used for the First Quakers. I think so Quakers are thinking this when they write, and I think this is the way to go.

    If blogging becomes to inward focused I am not sure its of much use, unless its inward focused like the writing of Merton for example who helped to model a life of contemplation on Christ.

    I see what you mean about the disruption of conversation, at least in so far as blogging can take place over the course of a number of days, whereas our face-to-face conversations happen in a more continous sequence. I don’t really see any problem with this though, we read books, newspaper articles and watch movies and TV shows that have all been written over the course of time. This may actually be one of the brilliant things about the written word, I get time to second guess myself, and rethink what I am about to say before I actually say it. If we only had this opportunity more in the real world. I think blog posts that are written over a couple days may be richer because they’ve had time to age.

    I realize there is the chance of being artificical with online personas, there isn’t any real way to avoid this other than A) model for others honest writing and B) invite your friends and community into your online dialogue and persona. The world is full of fake people, on and off the web – people of faith are hopefully modelling the kind of real-life honesty we desire in both dimensions.

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