True community on the web?

by Richard on February 24, 2007

This is an interesting article which challenges the notion of “community” on the internet:

The most obvious distinctive of life in cyberspace is an ominous one: communication is generally restricted to the written word. This skews interpersonal relationships among the Netizens in disturbing ways. Since you only exist in cyberspace by virtue of your words, it is necessary to keep those words flowing. Glibness is substantial, while conciseness is ephemeral. Writing thoughtfully works against you, since it tends to slow down both writer and reader. Self-centered bombast can establish you as a Net personality—caricature, really—while considerate and irenic writing tends to blur your image because it makes you difficult to categorize.

It’s very hard to argue with this. The “conversation” that’s possible on the internet is limited in the way that the author implies.But this does not mean that community of a sort is not possible. Genuine conversation may be hard to find, but it does exist. I hadn’t thought of the internet as a haven for gnostics before, and it’s a thought-provoking idea, but it doesn’t seem to me inevitable that those in “internet communities” are seeking an escape from physical community. Nor do I think that most internet users regard cyberspace as “superior” to the real world. The author claims that

There is nothing to do in cyberspace but talk and listen. When we encounter a brother in need, it profits him little for us to express our sympathy (James 2:15-17). But when the only tools available to us are words, we can respond to his need with little more than an anemic “I’ll pray for you,” leaving us unable—conveniently so—to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing his burden (Galatians 6:2).

but I know from my own experience and that of others that it is possible to offer more than words via the internet: practical help, support, finance, even (after a fashion) hospitality can all be made available to those in need. Of course, this is different from the kind of help and support that we can offer to our neighbours in the real world, and it is no substitute for it. But Jesus’ command to “love one another” applies to cyberspace as in the streets of our towns and cities, and it can be fruitfully obeyed here.

[Reblogged, and very slightly amended]

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Ian McKenzie 02.25.07 at 12:14 am

It’s a specious argument; kind of like saying a screwdriver is not a true tool because you can’t use it to hammer nails into a wall. It does a disservice to the disabled senior who cannot leave her room, and spends the entire day in prayer for and writing to people in need. I wouldn’t presume to call such ministry “anemic”.

I too have been able to offer practical help, financial assistance, and more via the Internet community. Furthermore, the Internet has expanded my awareness of the ministry of Christians in all corners of the world. From Albania to Zimbabwe (even to the wilds of Swansea ;) ) I am able to “bear the burdens” of others through my prayers and I can’t imagine those brothers and sisters in Christ would consider those prayers as “profiting little”.

2

Pam 02.25.07 at 1:42 pm

I agree with Ian - and have had similar experiences. I do think that internet community is a different kind of community than “real life” community however. Communication face-to-face is much less difficult in real life, but the internet also affords us the opportunity to “meet” people we’d not otherwise meet. I don’t know anyone in “real life” who wants to talk about theology anywhere near as much as I do, for example. Real life community involves greater obligations and steadfastness than does the internet and perhaps this is a worry for some.

However, the following statement really worries me: There is nothing to do in cyberspace but talk and listen. When we encounter a brother in need, it profits him little for us to express our sympathy (James 2:15-17). Please keep me away from the person who thinks that listening to others is “doing nothing” and who uses a bible proof-text to support their position! And PLEASE don’t let that person come ’round when I need a listening ear.

3

Milton Stanley 02.25.07 at 11:19 pm

I second what Pam says.

In my life, the community formed from weblog connections has been enocuraging and real. While I was taking Claymore blasts from members of my own congregation, those I’d met through blogging were encouragomg me not only on blog posts and comments, but in private e-mails and even face-to-face interaction.

My wife and I have sat down to meals with the families of two men I met through blogging. Not only that, but four bloggers have put their money where their keyboards are and sent me dollars when my church wasn’t able to continue paying my full salary. Two of these men have continued to send me money while I’m between jobs–one monthly, the other weekly. I’m not going to be gauche and name them, but they are prominent bloggers who folks have heard of.

To me, Christians who blog have been for me a community in a very real sense. Even though we’re usually separated by distance, words connect us as much as they did, say, Paul and the Romans.

4

BD 02.26.07 at 4:10 am

That was written on a site called Cumberland Books - Ironic.:^)

I have to agree with Ian, Pam and Milton.

Not only has online community entered ‘real life’ with flesh and blood friendships, it gives me the opportunity to ‘hear’ people I’d never get to listen to.

Like Ian, the net takes me outside my own little concerns and enables me to help others. So what if I never meet them, it doesn’t make them less real.

Sure there is a lot of noise online, and the web tends to attract people that may have difficulty with social skills, psychologists say certain personality types are attracted to text communication because it’s safer for them. on all kinds of levels.

I’ve also learned better communication skills reading blogs and comments. I can ’see’ gentleness, patience, goodness, meekness, faith, joy, peace and love in words.

And the internet is not just ‘text’ btw.

5

ee 02.26.07 at 2:13 pm

I used to dismiss the internet for the reasons given in the article that Richard quotes. Experience has given me the same perspective as all the commentators above though. The guy’s argument would be ok if it were stated along the lines of ‘these are some potential dangers of the internet’, because he would be right. Web communities aren’t a substitute for real life ones. But what everyone else above has realised is right - if people are of a mindset to live in community, then the internet can just become another expression of that, and enable us to widen our communities very effectively.

6

John 03.01.07 at 12:31 am

It is not shocking that folks reading this blog would object to the argument quoted in the post.

Of course, people such as ourselves see the Web as a place where you can commune. That’s why we are here.

But, that does not mean we should not listen to other voices.

What is missing in this Web community? Is it something that actually matters? Should its lack bother us?

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