I have a couple thousand “friends” on Facebook, and a few days ago I cyber-smacked one of them over the head like an ugly son-in-law. He had made what I thought was a very snarky, malicious comment about one of my awe-inspiring, earth-shattering posts. Such an offense I could not abide. So, in defense of my opinions (more accurately, my ego), I took to the keyboard and let him have it in front of Mark Zuckerberg’s 1.25 billion Facebook users (That’s right, if you haven’t been paying attention, Facebook is now the third largest nation on the planet, exceeded only by the populations of India and China). But a day later I discovered it was a huge misunderstanding.
My friend had not aimed his comment at me; it was directed at someone else. Further, he was being more sarcastic than sinister, more playful than mean-spirited, but it just didn’t communicate across the online superhighway. I apologized – profusely – and retreated to a corner of the World Wide Web with my foot, mouse, and keyboard in my mouth.
This whole incident, as minor as it turned out to be, is reflective of how we communicate and miscommunicate in the 21st century. For years I have noticed how people will say things in e-mails that they would never say to someone else’s face (good and bad), and I often warn my children about this as their thumbs blaze across the QUERTY keypads of their cell phones.
“Social networking” sites greatly magnify the effect, an effect now known as “online dis-inhibition.” We seem to lose our social restraint, our better judgment – sometimes we lose our minds completely – while hiding behind the pseudo-invisibility of the Internet and the digital airways.
A congressperson posts racy pictures to his account and scuttles his career; a middle-aged husband rattles all his marital skeletons online and ends up in divorce court; a high school football star loses his promised scholarship because of his Twitter rantings; a young woman can’t land a job because prospective employers Google her and deem her a liability: These are the realities, virtual and otherwise, of today’s world.
I don’t want to sound like some crazed Luddite who hates technology and pines for the days of the rotary phone or the covered wagon. I love WI-FI, streaming video, GPS, downloadable audio, and satellites. These words you are reading were typed on a laptop computer I cannot live without, and I’ve received a dozen emails in the course of writing this column. No, I’m not ready to give up these things.
But neither am I ready to accept all of these technologies without some critique and discernment. While I now recognize the countless alternative ways we can connect with others, I also recognize that we are lonelier and more disconnected than ever. I can see that we are more aware of the world around us than any previous generation, and yet I see that we may be the most narcissistic generation to ever live in North America.
As “social networking” grows, it appears we must guard against real communication disintegrating, and the constant undermining of real, human connection. Technologies aside, we still need flesh-and-blood relationships, connections that are built upon mutual respect, actual time together, shared interests, and face-to-face conversation.
People of faith may have more at stake in this issue than most, because faith fails in a hyper-individualized, self-centered world. Faith only flourishes in the environs of an authentic, unselfish community, not a virtual imitation where people hide behind their avatars.
I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that we cannot share text messages and shotgun blasted e-mails, and call these conversations; we would be better served by sharing a quiet cup of coffee and actually communicating with those around us. I know that if we spent more time looking people in the eyes, rather than through an LED display, the world would be a better place. And I know that we cannot “click” our way to real community, because friendships require actual presence, not page counts.