Saturday, April 19, 2008

You've Got a Friend

Once upon a time I used a voice/text chat program for several years. As with any online type of community, you meet up with folks you have plenty common with, folks you get along with well, just as you'll meet folks you don't get on with so well. This online chat community was no different, and there were some folks there that I didn't get on with so well. Most of the time they stayed out of my room and I stayed out of theirs, but we did run into each other at times.

One day, while I had my headset & mic on, one of the kids was fussing at one of the other kids and said "shut up". Without turning my mic off I turned around in my chair and said "shut up... what kind of way is that to talk to someone??" Well, the folks in the chat room only heard me, they didn't hear the first part of that conversation and it sounded like what I was doing was telling one of my kids to shut up, with an angry tone. Of course I was embarassed when I realized what that sounded like, but the folks that "knew" me understood completely when I explained it. One person there wasn't interested in hearing the full story and made it her business to go around telling folks she heard me yell at my kids and tell them to shut up so that I could chat (nice lady, that one). That made things a little tense on the voice chat program, and was eventually one of the reasons I finally left there. It was that sort of catty, gossippy, backbiting thing that I just got tired of, and decided to remove it from my life. I don't even watch daytime tv, I certainly don't need that sort of petty drama in my life to worry about.

The reason I share that story, is because of something I read at *blue's blog the other day. He was responding to something Abraham Piper wrote not too long ago, encouraging pastors to blog so that their congregations can get to "know" them better. He thought that came across as somewhat odd, and wondered if anyone else did too.

Having been part of the internet community for 14 years now, I agree completely that such an idea is in fact not only odd, but seriously misleading. I really liked what he said in response to my comment, because it's really the way it is:

"From the Internet, how many people know of my struggles with being a good father and a loving husband? Only those with whom I have decided to share it. But when you visit me, and one of my kids comes up and interrupts me when I’m talking to you, and I respond with a growl… I can’t edit that out."

Now I'm going to be really transparent here. There have been times that I actually have said "shut up" to my kids. I'm not proud of it, but it's one of those things that did fly out of my mouth in a moment of absolute exasperration. I didn't do it that day the folks in chat heard me (I was just repeating what one of the kids had just said), but it has happened. As a blogger though, you would never know that about me unless I allowed you to know it. As a blogger, you only know as much about me as I let you know, by what I chose to put up here.

online realityLike I said in my response to blue at his blog, to really know a person you need to be able to be around them on a regular basis. This is not to say that you can't get to know someone online, because we've all likely formed some pretty terrific friendships with folks online - but it is to say that you don't really know them the way you would, if you were physically around them on a regular basis. You never see how they react or respond when they get mad, or when they're sick, or when they've been offended. You're not there when they cry, or to see them laugh, to hold their hand when they're just received devastating news, or hug them when something fantastic just happened. While you can form long-distance friendships and have some wonderful fellowship with folks online, there is a limit to that relationship and part of the limit is just how much they let you in - or how much you let them in. The other part of that limit is the fact that we're all hundreds or thousands of miles apart and are not a present part of each other's every day lives.

Somehow, this has apparently gone right over the heads of so many online users who honestly believe their 1,493 "friends" on social networking sites are people they "know". "Oh, yeah I know him, his name is saucerhead, his blog is about chicken bone jewelry, great guy!" Um.. okay. This is not knowing someone, this is not a friend who sticks closer than a brother, this is knowing surface information about someone. Truth be told, you could walk right past this person in a crowd and you'd never know them at all.

The part of this that bothers me personally, is that "friend" is (or already has been?) redefined to simply mean some stranger that has a familiar screen name. I'd even go so far as to say that "friendship" means nothing more (for many people) than having a boatload of email addresses they can send things to. This bothers me as a mom because my kids are growing up in this electronic culture and I want to be sure they know what the difference is between a real friend, and someone they met online. I want them to understand the important value of genuine friendship, and how to to nurture those relationships - rather than just collect names and profiles and assume everyone they "know" is a friend.

I have a couple of real-life friends (isn't that funny that we have to clarify this way?) that I first met online. I've known them for several years and we've spent oodles of time genuinely getting to know each other (and each other's families) either over the phone, instant messaging over morning coffee, or in person. We've seen each other laugh, we've heard each other cry, we've been able to give hugs when needed, and we've eaten each others baked goodies. I've seen their expressions when their kids tick them off, and they've seen mine. They know things about me that I'd never write on this blog, and I know the same kinds of things about them, that the "public" would never know. The thing is, we know the person behind the blog or email address, not just the blogger, chatter or "internet friend". There's a vital difference there, that I think we too easily overlook, in favor of just calling everyone "friend".

The funny thing is, this all came to mind when Abraham Piper suggested that pastors should blog so that their congregations can get to know them better. For me, the question that comes to mind is what ever happened to old fashioned conversations, face to face? No one can convinclingly tell me that we are all SO busy that we don't have time to sit & chat for 30 minutes, over a cup of coffee. In the blogging community we can't always do that since most of us don't live close enough to one another, but we sure do live close enough to our pastors. I've had lunch with my pastor, he's been in my home, and we've had some great talks at church and over the phone too. I don't need him to blog, I can (and have) get to know him in person, because we're in the same church! I know there are folks that will argue the impossibility of such a thing for busy pastors of monumentally large churches. To that I can only suggest that if a pastor is so swamped that he cannot take the time to get to know his own congregation, and let them get to know him, then something is really out of place there.

Maybe it's just me, but sometimes it feels like electronic communication is replacing face to face fellowship, friendships, and relationships. There is something so very wrong with this, and I only hope we all keep it "in check" so that we don't isolate ourselves and forget how to foster one on one relationships with folks. Or worse, never learn how to do it in the first place.

*Yes, I do know blue's real name, - and Mrs. blue too, for that matter, but blue is what he goes by online, so blue it is. :-)

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