Beyond Superficial Connections
The sun rises, and with it, a chorus of rings, beeps, hums, buzzes, clicks and song snippets. They are the voices of our “devices,” the ever-present companions of people in the digital age. We stare into monitors and keep our devices close in pockets, purses and messenger bags. We Facebook, Instagram and link in. At night we drift to sleep, one of the only places technology can’t physically follow us.
Unless we make our homes in caves devoid of WiFi access, we can hardly work, shop, go to school or keep in touch with the family without Internet connection. Is this virtual life real life or a one-dimensional substitute? Can we find genuine community online—or just megabytes of near approximation and shallowness?
Living in a connected world
These questions were far from our minds when the Internet came into routine public use in the ’90s. Most people were just mesmerized. The speed! The efficiency of connections with people next door or continents away! MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle heralded the new age of Internet connection in a TED1 talk and her book Life on the Screen. Online communication changed the way we related to fellow human beings.
As the number of venues mushroomed, we added friends…joined groups…wrote blogs…bought and sold goods on eBay. And it all happened without the interference of actual physical human connection.
In 2012, sixteen years after her first TED lecture, Sherry Turkle again stood on stage, but this time she brought a measure of caution to her previous ebullience. In “Connected, but alone?” she said, “I’m still excited by technology, but I believe…we’re letting it take us places that we don’t want to go. People can’t get enough of each other if—and only if—they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control.”
We may be sitting together at the breakfast table, but we’re all looking at our phones.
Lost in the crowd
To go online is to join a massive meeting already in progress and in session 24 hours a day. Seventy-two percent of adults who are online use social networking sites.2 On Facebook alone, there are 665 million daily active users 3 and 1.1 billion monthly active users.4
How could anyone be lonely here?
When the animated Dreamworks character Shrek tried to explain the nuances of creatures like himself to his companion, Donkey, he spoke for humans, too. “There’s a lot more to ogres than people think. Ogres are like onions. They have layers.” True relationship means getting to know the layers, and that can be a challenge when information comes to us in fortune cookie snippets. The resulting composite pictures are often sketchy outlines. Looking at the outer layers—people’s trip photos, politics, gourmet meals, movie preferences or work experience—doesn’t help us know them, just know about them.
But whether in the virtual world or the “real” world, we face misunderstandings… unfriending…or the intentional inflammatory remark. Upbeat tweets and posts create the illusion that everyone’s life but ours is stress-free and idyllic.
Block out the noise
There are times when we just need to get out of the fray for a while. Doug Trouten, M.A., associate professor of journalism and chair of the Department of Communication, suggests occasionally disconnecting from quick, shallow communication through a short media fast—including TV, movies, recorded music, social media and the Internet. “Pay attention to how your media use changes your interactions with people,” he said. “Take a critical look and ask, ‘What exactly is this doing to me, and am I okay with that?’ If you’re not, ask, ‘What can I do about it?’”
We have permission to be unavailable for a time, ignoring the incessant demands of technology.
“Real community transforms everyone who is part of it.”
Slow down (sometimes)
It’s hard to carve out people time in a life filled up with activity and obligation. Being with people is time-consuming and it can be boring, too. We don’t expect to be bored; it feels wrong. Our minds are used to being engaged in online news, games and tweets.
It takes determination and patience to match our pace to someone else’s. And that’s when we observe the quirks and inconsistencies—and reveal our own. It makes some of us a little skittish to be studied that closely. Garry Morgan, D.Miss., professor of Intercultural Studies, said that when you slow down “you may have to face some things in yourself and others that are easy to overlook when you’re just texting one another back and forth. Even Skype can’t duplicate it.”
Be fully present
In a multitasking world, conversation is a powerful, single-focus task. According to Melissa Mork, Psy.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, healthy connection can occur in a variety of media, not just face-to-face. It includes four factors:
When everyone has a chance to speak and listen, barriers can begin to erode.
Learn the stories
Tim Kowalik, Ed.D., professor of Communication, says that not only does everyone have a story, but “God tells a story through each of our lives.”
Blogs, discussion forums and YouTube give us unprecedented access to the stories of people who have been isolated, oppressed and hurt. They call for a response—some sign that people care and are paying attention.
“We all want to feel like we belong,” said Dawnette Scott, associate dean, Orientation & Student Activities.
When stories are told and heard, the message sent is, “You matter.” Stories help everyone get noticed.
And, Kowalik noted, “We are a story-loving people.”
Intimacy is the result of thoughtful disclosure. “God made us people who need to express to others who we are,” said Michael Wise, Ph.D., professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Languages. “It requires sharing thoughts that are honest and revelatory. When we tell what’s true about us on a deep level and others listen, intimacy grows.”
In real community, we are involved with people at a deeper level, mourning, celebrating, being transparent and sharing difficult as well as good things. We find wisdom and accountability.
Online or in-person, community isn’t always about being with people who are “just like me.” And bringing our differences to a group environment can only happen when our communities invite us to come as we are, including bringing our vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
While every relationship is of value, deep friendships inside of community have the potential to change us. “Real community,” said Garry Morgan, “transforms everyone who is part of it.”
Plan for the good of others
The Christian life can’t be lived in isolation, said Wise, because “biblical love means to actively plan for the good of the other. That’s not passive. You don’t simply hope that good things happen or stand by and applaud when they do.” A short description in Acts 2 paints a stunning portrait.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.
“It’s an incredibly high standard of life,” Wise said, “and it’s held out as an ideal. We really have to know each other and have relationships that are beyond superficial.”
Christians are called to respond, moving beyond the “Like” button or the affirming text message.
Build community—even slowly
We have concerns about the incessant distraction of technology, but we have options.
“Human beings are quick to feel the need to categorize,” stated Dawnette Scott. “Black and white, yes or no, good or bad. I don’t think that’s the conversation. Instead we can say, ‘This is another tool. How might we use this well?’
The Internet makes the world a smaller place where proximity no longer determines whether we can be involved in other people’s lives. But true connections will always require sacrifice. Honesty. Active care. And time.
Shelly Barsuhn is a Minneapolis writer.
Is this virtual life real life or a one-dimensional substitute? Can we find genuine community online—or just megabytes of near approximation and shallowness?
University of Northwestern uses a variety of online tools to build community. These are just a few examples.
• Through Northwestern’s internal website, theROCK (Relevant Online Community Knowledge), individuals in the Northwestern community and KTIS listeners can post anonymous prayer requests. Each time someone commits to pray through PrayerWorks, an alert is sent to the recipient.
“Prayer creates depth in community and brings us back full circle to Christ-centeredness,” said Jim Johnson ’94, senior director, Constituent Relations & Campus Ministries. “The Northwestern community shares problems and struggles.”
• Private Facebook pages are created to serve as a meeting place for students preparing for overseas missions or study abroad. Before they travel, students have already journeyed together.
• Freshman and new student communities get their own Facebook page where posts can include everything from newly forming study groups to spontaneous offers of dessert (“I have half a mixed-berry pie in my dorm room.”) Newcomers to campus immediately have a place to meet their peeps.
• Dr. Cureton tweets—an invitation for students to interact.
• The Northwestern Twitter feed provides an opportunity for staff and students to interact around topics such as chapel, student activities and campus news.