I’ve been contemplating the topic of “community and technology.”  I was invited to participate in a synch-blog on the topic.  I guess the idea is that a number of bloggers all explore the same topic.  The result, presumably, is a number of different perspectives on the same issue.  I’m looking foreward to reading these.  I hope you will, too.

The bottom line for me: the internet and other technology  pose a danger to authentic community.  There are ways that this all can be used as an aide to help things along within a real community.  But they also pose a temptation, a risk.

We often throw around words like online community.  I’d like to challenge this thought a little bit.  I’d go so far as to suggest that it’s nearly impossible to have a community where the people aren’t dealing with each other on a face-to-face basis regularly.

I think that we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re in community with people.  I think that we can feel like we’re in community.   When we have these online relationships, they can feel so much more satisfying than our flesh-and-blood relationships.  They can be so efficient, easy, and convenient.

And the real danger is in this efficiency, this ease, and this convenience.

I believe that one of the biggest reasons that real community is so important is because of the ways real community challenges us.   There are special brands of selfishness that are never challenged if we never live in real community.  There are important ways that we will never suffer if we never live in real community.

In a real community or an online one, we can laugh with people and we can cry with people.  And these are important things to do.  But only in a real community can we actually sweat with each other, serve with each other, work for each other.

In a real community or an online one, people know the things that I want them to know about me.  And this is also important.  But in a real community, the things that I don’t want people to know, the parts of me I am ashamed of, the parts of me I am afraid of, these begin to trickle out.  When I can sit back and easily contemplate the exact word choice on an instant message or email, I can manufacture who I am.  But when I’m in a face-to-face conversation, I say the the things I really think and feel.  They might not always be wise or kind.  But they are real.

In a real community or an online one, I can prioritize my time so that we are able to spend time together, just focused on each other.  But a real community eventually integrates itself into my every day life.  We don’t just talk deep talks and think deep thoughts: we do mundane, silly, every day things together: shopping, shoveling out the sidewalk.

Generally, my participation in an online community is on my terms: my interactions happen when I want something from the group.  My participation in a real community, though, this happens when the community needs me.  It’s so easy to walk away from online interactions.  It’s so easy to just stop showing up.  People in real communities are available to each other, even when they don’t want to be.

I realize that there might be online communities which defy my expectations.  I am positive that there are face-to-face communities which are so shallow and superficial.  And increasingly, our relationships straddle over this divide: we both interact through technology and face-to-face with people.

I’m a blogger and a voracious emailer.  I do get it.  There are people who I’ve never met face to face and I wish so desperately that I had met them in the real world.

But I know that there are very few things that are more important than real community.  We don’t need casual friendships.  We don’t need long email lists, or blogs with thousands of readers.  We need community.

Community is sometimes hard work.  It’s sometimes messy and just plain hard.   Real community can hurt us in a way that very few other things touch.

And so when we’re faced with a psuedo-community, with community-light (half the commitment and all the flavor or ordinary community!) It can be easy to jump at this chance.

The relationships we form, the interactions we have might not be bad things, unto themselves.  But the real community that we might engage in suffers.  Because real community takes time.  If we allow our time to be swallowed up by unimportant things, we end up with none left for the important ones.  And if we rationalize that our needs are getting met, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t need real community at all, and our worlds grow smaller and smaller, shrinking down to ourselves at the center of the technological web.  Our cells phones, internet connections, lap tops, twitters, blogs, web pages, facebooks: these are these strands that reach out from where we are to the far corners of the earth.

But the problem with being at the center of this web is this: it’s easy to think that we’re the spider who spun the web.  But the truth is that we’re the prey, stuck to the strands and about to be eaten.

For a couple other really interesting takes on the topic of “community and technology”:

Jeff Goins is putting a positive spin on the answer to the question, Can online community exist?

Paul Vasilko shares about A surprise in his inbox



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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

6 thoughts on “Community”

  1. Yikes. That was an ominous ending. I think I agree with you, though I’m grateful for the on-line contacts that I have. But one thing I would add to the list of disadvantages is that the on-line community is that it can give you an excuse to opt out of real community.

    I can’t tell you how often this fall I said to people, when they asked me how I was doing around my cancer diagnosis, “Did you read my blog?”

    This makes them feel guilty (as if there is an imperative that anyone read my blog!) and makes me feel like, hey, I put it out there. If they really want to know, they’ll do the work.

    On the other hand of that, though–sometimes answering the cancer questions over and over again (because I have a fairly enormous real-life network as well as an internet one) really did get draining, and so it was helpful in giving me a reprieve or something, to be able to point people to someplace where I had already made the effort of trying to put words around how I was, without having to do it again, and again, and again.

    Mixed blessing, I would say. Mixed blessing.


  2. Great blog, Jeff. Thanks for joining the synchro-blog. Like you, I’m stuck between enjoying the conveniences of online community and yearning for some deeper human interaction.


  3. Jeff Goins is the guy behind the whole sync-blog on community and technology. (For those who are reading these comments and trying to keep track.) His observations challenged me on the topic. He offers some examples of people who know each other (or atleast met online) and who sacrficially give and participate in quite authentic community.

    Jenn– I’d say mixed blessing is just about exactly right. I hadn’t considered the way in which blogging makes diseminating information (about things like your diagnosis) so convenient.


  4. “Community is sometimes hard work. It’s sometimes messy and just plain hard. Real community can hurt us in a way that very few other things touch.”

    I work for a ministry organization that mobilizes teams of young musicians to share the Gospel of Christ, as well as challenge Christians to take action themselves. Our vision as ministry explicitly states that we are a community, so I’ve got some experience in this regard. Let me just say that your observations about community are right on. Well played, friend.

    Thanks for your honesty here.


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