Flourishing Friendships via Facebook or over the Fence?: Cultivating Community in a Cyber Culture
This coming weekend sees Neighbour’s Day celebrated across the country. Sponsored by Neighbourhood Support and the Mental Health Foundation, this is a country wide initiative to encourage the transformation of streets into neighbourhoods. Last year our street had a shared picnic in the street, and it was a lovely chance to meet new neighbour’s, and re-acquaint ourselves with neighbours that we already knew well. There was a healthy cross section of people, from young families to retired folk, and even our local MP showed up for a quick cuppa! This year we are doing the same. It wasn’t much for a few of us to organise, it was just a case of placing a flyer in each letterbox in the street, and asking that people bring themselves, a plate of food to share, and a deck chair.
We are fortunate to live in a fantastic neighbourhood, and many of our neighbours have become friends. I often joke to some of them that we talk more often on facebook than over the fence. Such is modern life. There are many other families in our street with children the same age and the children have a great time playing outside, swinging like monkeys from the trees, hosting lemonade stands and playing in each other’s houses. When our fridge/freezer broke down recently our neighbour on one side wheeled over a spare fridge for us to borrow. And when changing from one internet company to another meant we were without internet and phone for a week due to a system failure, they kindly shared their wifi with us. There are many other examples of when we have been the recipients of support from our neighbours and when we have given support too. There was the time that our car battery failed (which has happened multiple times since having children as they either leave a door slightly open or a light on in the car). When jump starting the car didn’t work, out came another neighbour with his homemade battery charger which did the trick. And then there are the lovely old ladies in the units behind our house who chuck packets of chips to the children as they bounce on the trampoline. And other neighbour’s that we can borrow a cup of sugar from, or offer a cup of sugar to.
But in an increasingly busy and mobile society, friendship has gone virtual in recent times. Even my grandmother has email (but she hasn’t graduated to Facebook or Twitter yet and probably won’t). Most friendships seem to have an electronic component to them these days. This is the premise of the book ‘Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World’ by Lynne Baab. We are made to be in relationship with others and authentic community seems to add such a richness to life, would you agree? But are people more isolated these days? Perhaps fostering flourishing friendship and cultivating caring community faces certain challenges today – namely the hectic pace of life, busyness and the fact that many people live in different locations from family and friends. The small city in which we live is fairly transient, and it is not uncommon for people to be here for a few years, perhaps to study and then they move on. And materially perhaps many of us are well off compared with previous generations, although there is an emerging group of society that sadly isn’t. But as our society becomes more and more consumeristic and individualistic, is it on the whole more relationally impoverished? A generalisation perhaps but maybe there is some truth in this.
Another question to ponder is whether online friendships are inferior o face-t0-face or over the fence friendships? So many articles have been written recently that suggest this. Interestingly, when telephones were introduced, concerns were raised by social and religious leaders about whether this technology might damage relationships. We humans don’t really seem to like change very much. And technology has seen the pace of change increase rapidly. There are many aspects of social networking that I see as positive – whether it is utilizing skype to see family overseas, text messaging a change in plan or blogging in my little corner of blogland. I haven’t graduated to Twitter or Instagram yet tas I no longer have a smart phone or a tablet, just a simple phone, and I’ve questioned in the interests of living a simpler life, whether I really need another social media application.
But online networking is convenient, and in this season of being at home with my children, it can help me to feel less isolated. It has been wonderful to reconnect with old friends, and to see pictures of their lives and their children, even though they are living a long way away. When I am busy, I can communicate with someone quickly and easily. Social media can also be a great way of providing and receiving social support. Last year in the community in which we live there was a family whose daughter was diagnosed with a serious illness. She is now doing very well but when she was first diagnosed the preschool music group in which we attend blessed their family with many meals, and to do this they used a great website called http://www.takethemameal.com. They sent out an email to ask interested parents to put down their names on this website, choose a date which was convenient to take this family a meal, specify what the meal was, and within 48 hours, there were 4-5 weeks worth of meals written down on this website for this family. This made the task of meal coordination so much simpler and briefer, and was a wonderful example of the richness of community, as well as the generosity of spirit present in this community.
However, some have argued that facebook and other forms of social media are examples of a ‘pseudocomunity’. Many joke about teenagers (and adults too!) sitting in the same room yet communicating with each other via cell phones. It’s a little crazy isn’t it. And on a more serious note, I was alarmed this week to hear in the news that the tragic news of the missing Malaysian airlines flight was broken to families via text message if they couldn’t be at the press conference. A phone call could be appropriate perhaps if there was no other way of contacting them, but a text message? Surely given the devastating circumstances more personal communication would have been more sensitive and appropriate, not to mention the more professional course of action?
Perhaps this is an extreme example that highlights some of the difficulties inherent in social networking. Social media isn’t always the most personal form of communication. Sometimes it can also lead to one being overloaded with information. If I am feeling overloaded, I limit the amount of time I spend on social media. Engaging in social media can also lead to social comparisons. This can be because many people (whether consciously or subconsciously) can sometimes create an online image of themselves that may be illusionary, and possibily quite unlike the reality. We really don’t know what is going on in the lives of others, other than what they choose to project online. And when others present a picture perfect image of their life or facebook or instagram their perfect life it can lead to social comparisons and jealousies. And we all know that we are content until we compare. Who hasn’t stared at someone’s photos of their holiday in Rarotonga and thought to themselves ‘I wish I was there’ (especially with all the poor weather we’ve been having recently). I’ve written about this before – that you see the smiling images of someone’s happy family, but you don’t see the toddler having a meltdown as you are trying to get out the door for school, and so on. And when some of our tweets or status updates are random, superficial and trivial, can they sidetrack us from deep connections with our friends? There is a place for superficial banter, but there is also a place for realness. Recently, a popular trend that has gone viral on social media is the ‘no make-up selfie’. This is a photograph of oneself without make-up, in order to raise awareness about breast cancer. But what if we were to consider posting the written equivalent of a no make-up selfie – a post that is more honest and real about the challenges of daily life? One that isn’t prettied up or air-brushed. I’m preaching to myself here, rather than anyone else. I try to be real in some of my facebook posts, and perhaps there is a time and a season for light banter, but there is also a place for looking behind the surface connections to the heart matters. Many of my posts are about the funny things that my children say and do and the chaos of family life. I find it refreshing when others are real. Looking behind the surface connections to the heart matters. However, on the other hand, social media is perhaps not a place to have public ‘meltdowns’ or arguments over ‘hot button issues.’
Online communication only engages two of the senses as Baab describes in her book. It doesn’t replace a real hug, the freshness of a face to face interaction, or a coffee date with a friend. Although skype is the next best thing, and has given me the opportunity to have a virtual coffee group of sorts with a friend who has recently had a baby and now lives overseas. There is also the problem that social media may foster self-centredness or even narcissism, the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own physical or mental attributes, that derive from arrogant pride. And as this becomes more wide spread, perhaps society is becoming more tolerant and accepting of this. Addiction to technology is another problem arising from social media use, and this seems to be becoming increasingly common. For many, including myself, there can be the temptation to spend too much time on facebook and other forms of technology. Many people are trialling technology fasts, or taking a break from social media. Because for some it can, like anything, become a modern day idol. For Lent in previous years I have given up facebook and these days I try to have a screen -free Sunday. We need to be wise in our use of technology, and careful with what we post, as well as how often we spend time online. I try to think about what I am posting, and how this might come across to my diverse group of friends as I don’t want to offend anyone. Similar to in real life interaction – we would be wise to be careful with what we say and how we engage with others.
And what does it look like to be a loyal friend in a cyber culture? Perhaps it is just being there in a crisis and during the challenges of life. Perhaps the closest friends are the ones who have seen you at your worst, and still accept you the way you are. Perhaps it is also true that many of us have many friendly online acquaintances, but not so many deep friendships. Friendships take time to cultivate and very few people have the time to cultivate twenty deep friendships, but they might be able to develop three or four. And perhaps our mobile world has afforded us the opportunity to cultivate more relationships than we can ideally manage. I’ve heard it described that one of the biggest challenges in friendships today is that we fear being known, even though we crave it. This is a concept to ponder. I’ve come to the conclusion that I will focus on the positive aspects of social media as well as being aware of the pitfalls. I also want to be intentional about fostering over the fence or face to face friendships. Perhaps in order to foster friendships that flourish and cultivate authentic caring communities, we can utilize the best of both worlds.