Even before I’m able to get my act together writing the entries in this series, I find myself reading online friends who are writing more interesting things on this subject than I probably will, and a few good things that I wouldn’t have written at all. So, as a preliminary, let’s look at those.
Cindy at Dominion Family writes about the nature of online friendships. Her key observation:
In order to be successful, communities must be small. One reason is that we can only feel deeply about so many things.
True community only thrives when the members deeply care for one another. If we think that our online relationships are on the same plane, then we should probably rethink what it means to care deeply.
Myself, I don’t really view my online relationships as friendships at all. Some of them are potential friendships, i.e. I suspect we would get along well if we were in close proximity and regular physical contact. Some I am sure could never go any deeper than they go online. And some I would rather not put to the test.
One other category that may be worth thinking about: interrupted (or perhaps intermittent) friendships. We have a few good friends who are physically distant and who we see only occasionally; some of those friendships developed when we lived in physical community, and some developed over the distance. What I find is that while we are apart we make contact casually and infrequently. But on the rare occasion that we can get together, we are fully in the moment for as long as it lasts; years may have gone by since the last visit, and it may be years before the next one, but for the length of the visit it is as if we lived a few houses down. Much different that the constant but shallow contact that online technologies foster.
I recommend you read all the comments on Cindy’s post. One of them comes from the Deputy Headmistress, who expands on the comment on her own blog, describing her own approach to online life and adding some important cautions about how we conduct ourselves in this new medium:
I think we should think very carefully about how we speak about our families in public, and this internet medium is ever so much more public than public. It doesn’t go away. You can delete a page or a post, but it can be retrieved again through google’s cache or the internet archives, or somebody else will have saved a screenshot, or printed it out. Our children are going to grow up and see the things we said about them to hundreds or thousands of other total strangers, and they may resent it.
I see so many people publicizing things about their children or their spouses that make me cringe. I think about how I would feel if my children or my husband posted publicly about my most PMS of moments, telling the entire world and all our nearest and dearest strangers my most unlovely traits. That would be a painful betrayal, and the unkindest cut of all seems to me to be allegedly posting those negative things about our family members under the guise of ‘being real’ or ‘needing prayer’.
We should be ‘real’ with our REAL life friends- the ones who can see more sides than the one we choose to present in print, because however fair and honest we may try to be, we still are human and cannot help but be slanted in how we present details. We should be real with those real life friends who we can trust to be real back, to be honest and tell us, "You are not being fair," or "Yes, that’s true, but does it matter? Does it alter how you are supposed to be respond?"
As I suggested in my introduction to this series, there are new behaviors we need to develop and learn in order to live uprightly in these new contexts. But the principles that will shape these new behaviors are really older than dirt, the same ones that have forged our traditional understanding of how to treat others in real life.
Another good comment comes from Laura A, who points out that online acquaintances, while perhaps not friends, can help us in ways that our real-life friends can’t or wont:
A big reason I like to read online is to discuss books and ideas, or just ways of living, that don’t appeal to most people I know. I think it’s a decent compromise. Young moms don’t always have time to go across town to some special evening discussion group, so reading online helps them to discuss things when they have time, which may only be during a 15-minute break during the day.
Laura also mentions this recent article in the Wall Street Journal which points out that the nature of online life forces us to develop one uniform personality fit for global consumption, whereas in real life we can be appropriately different to different sets of acquaintances. I’ve thought about this difficulty before, and my response is in some sense to define it away by investing my online presence with as little personality as possible.
By which I don’t mean an inhuman objectivity, but more a writerly detachment. I’ve read many excellent books where I think much of the excellence derives from the fact that the writer refrains from injecting much of himself into the writing. I finish the book admiring the ideas and the writer’s thinking, perhaps also his mastery of writing, but with no desire one way or the other to meet him. I’d like to develop a similar detachment with my own readers.
My hero and model for this is the late Neil Postman. I stand in awe of his thinking and nearly weep at the lucidity of his writing. And I suspect that in his personal life he was a good and decent human being. But I never especially wanted to meet him, or know about his family or daily life, and I couldn’t guess whether we would have enjoyed spending time together.