Monday, August 13, 2007

Connect | Play

The other day I had two coffees with two friends, one in the afternoon the other in the evening.

My afternoon coffee companion raised the subject of Facebook. His view was that this self-named ‘social utility’ would, in the long run, actually work against social connections, being part of a trend that trapped people in a virtual world. He cited anecdotal evidence of a growing number of people who were self-confined to the safety of their own homes, sat in front of their computer, never having to go out and come across, for example, home-less people without access to the virtual world. And he cited first-hand observed evidence of three people he knew who worked in the same building as each other and communicated through the day on Facebook: get off your chair and walk over to each other!!!

The same subject came up with my evening coffee companion. He told me the story of how he ended up with a Facebook account. He had been asked to talk to a group of young adults on engaging in mission within their culture, and he talked about needing to go to the places where people gathered – which, in our world are both physical and virtual – and spend time getting to know them, to understand how they viewed the world, engaging with them. And he cited MySpace as an example.
At the end of his talk, they informed him that they had all moved on from MySpace to Facebook. So he went home and signed up.

Both my friends made valid points. And both made points that are mitigated by other factors we might take into account.

Here are two reasons why Facebook might be A Good Thing: multiple connection, and play.

Another friend of mine has been doing some serious thinking on the subject of friendship recently – how we make friends, and invest in friendships. And one of the things sociologists identify that strengthens our relationships is multiple places of contact. In a ‘traditional’ community, neighbours not only live/d alongside each other, they worked alongside each other, shopped alongside each other, worshipped alongside each other, their children were educated alongside each other…In a transient community, the multiple nature of connections are broken down – and the quality of our relationships suffers as a result.

(I am a transient: my family is about to move to another city for two years, while I am at theological college; we will then move again, to my curacy; and then again…)

This is why teenagers who see each other all day at school (though largely in classrooms where social contact is tightly channelled) get on the phone to each other the moment they get home – having txtd each other on the journey. It might drive their parents insane, but they instinctively recognise that the more the expressions of or contexts for contact, the greater the reinforcement of the relationship. The mobile phone and the Net do not replace physical contact in physical settings; but reinforce – and, indeed, mediate – such contact. And for some of the talk to be serious – the eternal Big Questions of life – there is need for a lot of mindless chatter, or fun. If we represent serious talk by oxygen carried in the bloodstream, fun is both the arteries along which it passes and the red blood cells that carry it along.

Fun is a means of building the trust accounts that allow us to talk about serious things; and a convention that allows us to talk about things that expose ourselves, making us vulnerable, by allowing us to be slightly less vulnerable. And Facebook was created for teenagers – even if ‘us oldies’ are gate-crashing the party…Sending your friend a virtual fish for their virtual fish tank might not change the world in a big way. But who knows what it might lead to?

And frankly, those of us who grew up evangelical could all do with a little more fun in our lives. Andrew – lighten up a little, why don’t you?

If you want to look me up on Facebook, I’m listed as Andrew C. Dowsett.

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