In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray briefly inquires whether the Internet undermines social capital by competing with traditional interactions or if it augments traditional social capital with new resources for people to connect. He never provides a definitive answer to the question.
I drew the conclusion it does both. Extensive community connections have been waning for quite some time now as we have moved from an agrarian society to an industrial one to a corporate one, and now a digital one. Each successive shift has created more distance between families, and a culture that is increasingly deracinated.
I certainly appreciate the inherent difficulties that come as a result of our ever increasing dependency on electronic virtual media. My husband often notes how people say things to one another on line and in text messages that they would never say in person. For that reason he refuses to answer text messages from friends or family that broach serious, intimate subject matters. If they want to talk to him about something serious, he demands that they treat it with the care it deserves and call him up. He basically uses the Internet for working, shopping, and minutiae. He finds it a terrible source of community.
On the other hand, he does accept and understand that I have found a sense of community with the women I have met online. Of course, I have never been one particularly content with superficial relationships and most of my Internet friendships have fizzled out. The only ones that have had staying power are the ones which have extended beyond the eyes of the blogosphere. In fact, when this post is published, I will have just been blessed to have had a lunch date with one of my blogging friends.
One of the strengths of this blog, that thing that makes us rise above the typical meme that women eventually devour one another, is the sense of community that we have built away from here. We know what each of us looks like, what our husbands and kids look like, our struggles, what is going on in each others’ lives from day to day. We have built a community, limited though it may be, that enables disagreements (and we have our share) not to become occasions to demonize, belittle and create unnecessary strife.
We see each other as human beings rather than faceless, nameless virtual characters. More importantly, we pray for one another. We have even had conference calls where we hear each others voices as we pray together for the needs of the contributors and members of the TC community. Community (albeit limited) can be built in the virtual world.
But this community, as rewarding and as fun as it is, is not all that community was meant to be. No matter how much we enjoy communicating with one another, we are limited. When one of us has a baby, the others cannot come to her house to cook, clean, and give her a chance to take a nap. We can’t take her out for coffee and give her a chance to pour out her heart and give her a hug as she struggles with the isolation that is the life of the 21st century housewife. We are spread around the country, the globe even, and the distances are too great.
You see it when someone suddenly disappears from an online network. Are they alright? Is their family alright? What ever happened to them? This is the nature of virtual community. At the end of the day, unless the relationships are of flesh and blood, the sense of responsibility to care for one another is simply not there. It short, Internet community falls short of the true definition of a community. It is in fact, something else. Something less. As hard as it is for some to accept, it’s the truth. Facebook “friends” are not friends. Most of the people you banter with daily online won’t miss you when you’re gone.
For far too many people, the Internet “community” is the only community they’ve ever known, and that’s too bad. The answer to Murray’s query is yes and no. Yes, community can be birthed through the technology of the Internet, as I have made real life friends through this medium. But no, the Internet cannot replace true community.
It can however, seem real enough that most people don’t realize what they are missing until it’s too late.