Thursday, July 02, 2009

On social media and virtual relationships What I've learned to value in them

Are so-called "virtual relationships" valid? I have a good number of internet-only friends (friends I've never met in real life, but nevertheless whom I've associated with for several years online), and I value their friendship immensely. I've been thinking a fair bit recently about the validity of online relationships and the value I place in them.

It began while I was on a vacation recently. Traveling away from home for me meant no internet access unless I happened across a Wi-Fi hotspot. This provided an opportunity to disconnect from the ubiquitous curse/blessing of Microsoft Outlook and the friendly chime alerting me to an incoming email, but it also forced me to disconnect (partially, as it turned out) from my circle of online friends. No pastors forum. No Facebook. No Old Lutheran. None of those regular and expected channels of communication were open to me for a period of about two weeks.

I noticed a few things. One, I didn't experience the withdrawal symptoms of an internet addict. I felt no compulsion to stop at a trendy Starbucks to get a double fix of caffeine and 'net, nor the need to haul out my laptop just because the interstate rest stop advertised free Wi-Fi access. It was good to break away from everything that was "back home" and focus a bit more on the here and now of traveling and seeing family.

But I also noticed a distinct difference in the make-up of my Twitter tweets (you can follow me @troyneujahr). Whereas normally I'd confine a tweet to a work-related ministry question, something that was perhaps intended to start a conversation or give insight into a pastor's day, on vacation my tweets started to take on a new flavor. With no possibility of entering into a discussion with my online community, I started to view my tweets as a sort of mini-postcard. I'd think of my online friends as I typed out 140 characters of "What I'm doing now", and in my mind there?d always be a little additional tagline of "Wish you were here." A Twitter update became my way of thinking fondly of my online friends for a few moments and expressing (albeit obliquely) a longing for the coming day when we could freely converse once again.

I can only think of one possibility for my behavior: in my mind, the relationships I've formed online are genuine relationships that mirror person-to-person relationships in every way. I have casual acquaintances in real life with whom I can pass a few moments of pleasant conversation, and I have the same type of acquaintances online. I also have a select, limited number of deep personal friends in real life whom I rely upon for advice and support, but I also have the same type of online friends, as well. One friend in particular is a man that I have NEVER met in real life, but I nevertheless have no doubt that if I were to show up at his home unannounced I would be welcomed as a cherished and long-time friend . . . because that is what we are, despite the limitations of online, virtual communication.

What's more, I have also recently learned that a virtual friendship can actually create a bond that, when brought into real life, is almost immediately transferable. At our recent LC-MS Michigan District convention, for instance, I bumped into a few folks that I have connected with on Facebook. In each instance, I saw them from a short distance away, recognized them from their online profile, and introduced myself saying, "We're friends on Facebook." Without fail there was a second or two of visible mental processing followed by an "Oh yeah! Good to meet you!", and then a few pleasant and enjoyable minutes of conversation. Not the awkward sort of first-meeting conversation, either, but rather a continuation of what we knew of each other from the virtual world. Virtual friendship transferred quickly and easily into real-world friendship.

Can virtual friendships entirely replace real-world face-to-face contact? No, I'd never suggest that it could. In the case of the church worship service, for instance, there is a necessity of a flesh-and-blood gathering of human beings meeting consistently around Word and Sacrament. "Virtual worship" remains, in my mind, a self-defeating term. Likewise, the relationship of me to my best friend (save Christ), namely my wife Stephanie, is something that could never be replicated online.

But consider what true friendship really is: two people learning to understand and appreciate one another for who they are. Seeing each other in a variety of different contexts, seeing each other through a variety of life events?both crises and celebrations. Two people interacting in friendly banter, in arguments, in difference of opinions, in requests for prayers, and in mutual consolation. Two people supporting one another, loving one another, and befriending one another.

Through the blessing of the internet, God has given me such friendships. Some in real life, some online. It's a blessing for which I'm extremely thankful. And I've learned that, when it comes to friendship, there is no such thing as a "virtual friend" . . . there are only friends that I've met in person and friends that I have not.

Thank you, Lord, for those friends.

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