Thursday, February 19, 2009

Virtual Community

Here are three great posts this week on how technology affects community:

Brett McCracken on the death of Facebook. I'm still a big fan of Facebook, but Brett gives me some great food for thought. Money quote:
...all of these technologies make it easier for us to control every aspect of our identity as it exists in relationship to other people. It makes “communion” with people little more than highly self-conscious, intricately schemed, situational performances wherein we control what, when, where, and how much of ourselves people can know. Whatever happened to that wonderfully unsteady sense of mystery, that awkward flubbing around in relationships that used to characterize “getting to know” someone? That is all dispensed with in the Facebook world, where we can “know” someone just by spending some time poking about their various profiles, blogs, and pictures, or just by googling them. 

Shane Hipps and Zach Lind discuss virtual community. Shane had some really interesting thoughts on technology and brain development, especially in children and teenagers. Money quote from the video:
Virtual community is a little bit like playing music on a one-string guitar. You can make music; it's just not as interesting or as good as a guitar with six strings. And I think that the fact of the matter is that there's a very narrow band of frequency that you're operating on in virtual community. I hope it's useful to people, I just don't think it's as full.

Bob Hyatt on multi-site video venues for church as the potential death of preaching. I'm still wrestling internally with what I think of multi-site video venues in church, as there are a variety of approaches and motivations behind the concept. On one hand, video venues (as well as podcasts, blogs, and other forms of media) allow for more spiritual information to spread to a wider audience. But like Shane talks about above, this isn't a full picture of community if it's all about spiritual content presented from a distance with little to no actual communal engagement.

I believe that there's value in virtual community, but it doesn't capture the full picture. I've had great online interaction with various bloggers/leaders in the church world, people that I never would have interacted with apart from online and whose influence definitely shapes my thinking. I value those online connections. But I'm still convinced that face-to-face interaction in a coffee shop with my online friends would be more fruitful and meaningful than leaving a comment or sending a Facebook message. I would much rather sit down to a meal with them than read their blog post. 

The irony is, I'm writing a blog post about virtual community with the intent that someone will read it and respond, engaging in an online conversation with me. :)


  1. I think like all social networking sites, Facebook will become less popular. Twitter is certainly on the rise right now.

  2. Hi, All - interesting discussion.

    I use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and several other lesser sites, and would offer a quiet, but dissonant viewpoint.

    I agree that the online world can result in "pseudo-connections" and many folks do just use the venues to create artifical personalities, collect "friends" like candy, and so on.

    Others, however, take advantage of the ability to leap across geographical, cultural, age-related, and superficial barriers, such as how someone looks or their ethnic mix.

    To me, the key is to engage in authentic dialogue.

    Authentic means real and honest. No way to gauge that, unfortunately, so we have to take people as they present themselves . . . until and unless we have some reason not to. This is problematic if you are a young person.

    The dialogue aspect is important too. It is relatively shallow to post a brief remark or tweet - but a rich and ongoing discussion can and does occur online all the time.

    There's a lot of online "world" beyond the popular social networking sites and I don't think that this modality is going away. We need to figure out how to make it work, especially in connection with our communal spiritual needs.

    From the Heartland, with no real answers, but many great questions.

    @JohnESmith (twitter)

  3. Cam, I don't know if I could ever join Twitter. I may eat those words some day.

    John, I'm not arguing that online interaction can't be valuable or enriching. Otherwise, having my blog would be a bit hypocritical. But I'm not sure I could so far as to say that you leaving a comment on this blog means that you and I are now in community. Yes, we've established a bit of an online connection now, but does that mean we've moved into community? I can't say that we have.

    I'm also not sure what the "this is problematic if you are a young person" comment was supposed to mean, so could you clarify that?

  4. Hi, Joel - thanks for your comments.

    I did not claim that you and I are in community. Your characterization is exactly correct. You talked and I talked - that's all.

    However, I have experienced rich community online, so I know it's possible. Like with most relationships, it comes with time, exchange of thoughts, and mutual respect. Just saying it's possible.

    The comment about "problematic for young people" referred to the issues surrounding safety when sharing online. It is difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to verify that who you are communicating with is actually who they say they are. This makes the unsuspecting attitude which I see some folks adopt toward online activity a little dangerous.

    Does this help clarify my comments?

  5. Joel:
    We really should meet someday! Ha Ha - anyway, I love this post. I am so thankful for the on-line community, as it keeps us in touch with each other and our lives. I appreciate finding people I have not seen for years and keeping up with the many people we have met over our years of ministry that we would never be able to otherwise.