Why don’t more Gen-Xers ‘get’ Online Relationships?

Social Media Natives CAN Create Communities

I have a beef with my generation. In fact, I almost want to claim that I’m not of the generation in which I’ve been assigned.

I was born in 1979, which by most accounts is in the last 3 years of Generation X. I share a lot of character traits with my generation and have a lot of cultural experiences that Generation Y doesn’t share with me…so I know I’m in the right category.

One shared experience is that the latter third of Generation X grew up around digital relationships. The last 10 years of GenX are mostly “Digital Natives.” I was in 7th grade in 1994 playing Dune 2 until the early morning hours. I was in the first keyboarding class in my middle school. Many of the rest of my generation shares these first experiences from middle school to college, so having a digital experience is a shared relationship with this segment of my generation.

But here’s the key difference: While a large chunk are probably digital natives, it is probably only a three-year period encompassing my birth year that my section of Generation X would be considered “Social Media Natives.” I was in 11th grade in 1997 when I got on the NEW AOL Instant Messenger with one of the worst screen names imaginable. My formative high school, and college years have been around digital interactions and digital relationships that the elder arc of my generation didn’t have, and in fact, critiques.

So my beef is with my fellow generation’s writers and thinkers who de-value online relationships like Rev. Andrew C. Thompson who writes in his most recent UM Portal article the following:

As a Gen-Xer who has lived through the dramatic social and technological changes of the past 35 years, I’ve become convinced that the large-scale forces at work around us have a fragmenting effect on local churches. Technology has an “individualizing” impact, as new devices and media cause people to become connected as much to screens as to other people. And the influence of pop culture is almost imperial in its ability to co-opt people and communities into a story not their own.

I’ll admit, I’m with him. I go to my town’s football games and the youth are sitting in the stands texting each other rather than talking to each other. I’ve written before that I have a problem with parishioners texting not talking with me. And being critical of media messages is a constant drumbeat with my lessons with my youth and my sermons. So the two of us Gen-Xers are on the same page here.

But the next paragraph indicates the Social Media Native/Immigrant divide that contrasts my end of the Gen-Xers with the other 90% of my generation:

From time to time I’ll encounter people who think my read on the culture is a bit too critical. They’ll counter that social media actually make us more connected to one another. And they sometimes argue that the effects of globalization are making the world smaller and more intimate rather than the converse.

I understand these arguments, but I don’t buy into them. Social media and the devices that we use to engage such media are disembodied. To be a “friend” with someone on Facebook (to use one example) doesn’t require personally sharing the joys and pains of that person in any kind of face-to-face way. And to be connected with other people (culturally or economically) halfway around the world requires . . . what? Whatever the requirements, sitting with others in my living room isn’t one of them.

I couldn’t disagree more. Digital relationships can be embodied and personal in many ways that do not require face-to-face relationships. I speak out of some life experiences which are really really really nerdy but that’s the point:

  1. When I was in college I was part of an online “clan” of Unreal Tournament gamers. The 12 of us never met in real life. I was the “chaplain” of the group as I was studying religion. We gamed together but also kept in community with each other, talked about our families, our work, our school, helped each other with homework, taught each other nunchuk skills (I learned HTML from one of them), and one member tracked another down when they were trying to commit suicide and stopped him. Could we drop out at any time? Yes and we did. But for that period of time, we kept together.
  2. When I was between college and seminary, I started an online religion forum with 2 other people whom I never met. We expanded to 10 administrators/moderators from USA, England, Australia, only one of which I knew in real life. For five years we were in communication almost every day. We evangelized and brought in other people who were struggling with Christianity and brought them on a different path. We talked through divorces, through infidelity, through faith crises, through graduating college, through death of loved ones, through the death of one of our forum members. We broke the anonymity divide and called each other on the phone (Aussies sound weird). I was likely more present and accountable to this community in my time of transition than anyone in real life.
  3. Now as a clergyperson, I’m a part of four online clergy or religious professionals groups with private forums and memberships. We lament together, we share best practices, we answer each other’s questions, we tease each other, we hold each other accountable, we go through pastoral transitions together, we celebrate joys and concerns. We see each other face-to-face maybe once every 6 months to two years. Or we’ve never met. It doesn’t matter: we have a shared identity and that alone is enough to allow us to enter into deeply personal and spiritual relationships with each other.

So the key question, it seems, is “Can digital relationships have the same depth and impact as real-life relationships?” My answer, as a Social Media Native, is yes. I’ve been doing it for ten years now. And I can’t be alone in this.

When I have this conversation, I often hear these top two arguments against this position (in my experience) and here’s my responses:

  • “Online, we can be whoever we want to be.” That’s right, we can. We can be inauthentic, we can lie, we can be completely different people than we are in real life. Or we can be ourselves, be authentic, tell the truth about ourselves because saying the truth online is easier than face-to-face. I use the same approach I take with my youth. I tell them “you can lie to me and I will accept it and the lie is what we will talk about. Or you can tell the truth and we can talk about it. Either way, we’re going to talk, but one wastes our time, the other really helps.” If both parties choose to be authentic, then authentic relationships are possible.
  • “Online relationships are shallow and more about convenience than intentionality.” That can be true. We can logoff when we don’t want to confront people, we can troll when we want to tear other people down, we can stop reading dissonant voices as we recede into our echo-chambers. We can walk away from relationships, create a new username, and start over. Of course, we can never do this in real life. We never switch churches when we are challenged, we never move when our life situation changes, we never change our circles of friends when growing up in high school and college. The truth is that our spheres are as fluid in real life as they can be online. I don’t see them as more or less about “convenience” than real life.

Are there negative effects of technology on our sense of community? Yes, but that’s taken place ever since the air conditioner moved families from their breezy porches to inside their homes with the doors shut. It just takes people who seek what non-natives have, who value what non-natives value, who want something in another realm that they seek out novel ways to create it in their realms. Those people exist and those movements happen now.

Someone asked me recently if I looked back 10 years from now and what would I have wanted to have accomplished for the Church. I replied that I would want to have figured out how to cross the social media / church divide. How to have online relationships that augment real-life relationships or, perhaps, even replicate them. How to be the church in the digital spheres in some ways, and how to move that energy to the real-life spheres, and back again (I’m still not convinced you can be a digital church completely: the incarnation requires some level of face-to-face time, but I place a higher value on digital relationships than most). You and this blog are a big step in that direction as we comment and discuss back and forth and find the answers somewhere in the middle.

Whether it was the air conditioner or the radio or television or subways enabling long commutes or Facebook, technology will always be challenging our definitions of what community is. And I’m thankful for well-intentioned people who love God and love people who can disagree and perhaps in our debates may find the middle way that honors the values of both sides of this digital/analog divide. Thanks for being a part of this big experiment.


(Photo credit: My tech loadout in my shoulderbag/manpurse/satchel, taken 1/5/2012)
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  1. says

    Jeremy, I’m solidly in the middle of Gen X and I affirm what you are saying here. Through the site-formerly-known-as-seven-villages, Facebook, blogging, and most recently a Moodle online Bible study, I’ve cultivated friendships with some other UM clergy and laity across the connexion. Some I have never met, and yet we’ve shared some deep discussions, and heart-felt experiences. These are people I’ve grown to trust and love, and yet we’ve never “met.”

  2. says

    As one of the founders of RevGalBlogPals, I can testify that this 6+ year old online community has developed into something real, with skin on, for many of us. In some cases I met people in person because of the blogging connection and then became closer. In other cases, our lives clearly intersected in meaningful and spiritual ways, even if we were not able to meet in person. I pray for and care about members who I may never meet in person. Do they represent themselves as they truly are? I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. For years I wrote about a marriage I was trying to make be as good as I wished it was, and people were supportive, and when the fiction I had been selling myself came apart, they were still right there with me. We are a community, formed online, expanded both online and in-person, and we are real together.

  3. Lisa Beth says

    It might be interesting to consider how addiction recovery groups use social media. Those relationships require honesty, intimacy and trust, which are difficult for many people in recovery to develop. Yet online recovery meetings flourish , as do accountable relationships with sponsors. I see similarities with faith-based online relationships that develop intimacy and trust, accountable discipleship, support and encouragement. Is there a similar discussion among recovery professionals about whether or not online relationships are valid?

    For the record, my birth year is in no-man’s land – some generational researchers put me in Baby Boomers and some put me in Gen-X – but either way, I use social media and truly value my online relationships and community. So to answer your title question, this is one Gen-Xer who gets it.

  4. says

    One thing I got from this, is that I was 12 when Star Wars came out and you weren’t even born yet. LOL. When I worked at a NWS office in eastern Kentucky (1998), some would lament about the air conditioner as the reason people didn’t connect, because no one was on their front porch anymore. I thought that was odd, but saw their point, however, I always asked myself, “So how do I try to connect with others if the old ways are falling by the wayside?” I guess in that way, have always gravitated to the technology that seems to be connecting people in ways the critics grimace at. (Not sure this makes a lot of sense since I’m working a midnight shift. My brain isn’t as coherent during this week of mid shifts.)

  5. says


    I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m a bit older than you (9 years) but I remember first getting online and playing with Prodigy when it first came out.

    I began getting active on Fido Net and AOL back in 1994 and there are people I’ve been in contact with via the Internet continually since 1996. This has afforded me the opportunity to visit with people online and actively minister in their lives.

    I’ve met many in person and had wonderful opportunities for ministry in those contexts as well. I have real relationships with many people that I may never see face to face but I speak with them over Skype.

    Your entire topic is something I wish iwas able to pursue on the doctoral level because I know of real communities that have been formed through the use of social media. I’ve seen funds raised for charity by complete strangers as well as people plugged into local communities due to the social interactions found online.

    What many Christian critics of social media do nit understand is that Paul ministered to quite a few people he never met or had only seen a few times. Was he socially unaware? I don’t think so…in fact, the digital age affords better communication than Paul may have ever dreamed of.

    This subject is very near and dear to my heart and I hope to dialogue with you further about it.

  6. says

    I’m (probably) horribly way older than anyone leaving comments and even *I* get how social media can help create, build, and sustain communities in general and those involving people of faith in particular.

    Three years of involvement with @Virtual_Abbey plus training as a Sociologist plus work in the trenches of church communication has persuaded me that social media are a powerful tool for information, education and inspiration.

    In the past year especially I’ve observed how more clergy and church-based workers are slowly but surely getting past their fears and realizing that these are *tools* that need to be used wisely and well. I’m noticing more and more helpful convos via social media about using it FTW…and the Kingdom.

    BTW, you and your readers are most welcome to participate in the lively, cordial, and ecumenical church social media (#chscom) chat on Tuesday nights at 9PM ET. We ask that people use the hashtag #chsocm to tag content and conversation about church social media in between chats. That hashtag is how I was led to your fine post!


  7. Mark Douglass says

    I have had lots of thoughts in response to your post; it really has made me examine my interest in forming an online community (esp. as a solidly Gen X individual!). I think, however, that it may be easier for Gen Xers to work towards helping to provide or supporting a platform and then getting out of the way. Certainly this requires seeing value in such communities, but I think its easier to recognize value than to necessarily be a participant, and your arguments – as well as those of your respondents – points to a good start at establishing such value for Gen Xers, and more importantly, the remainder of the older generations.
    However, the thing that has come to me most of all is that we suffer from the delusion of a Golden Age (we humans generally see the past as being simultaneously more glorious and more difficult than it actually was,and the further into the past, the greater the discrepancy).
    I would argue that lots – perhaps even most – folks who fill the pews in many churches are ‘in the church’ for little more than an hour or two a week…and that may be generous. I would argue that many if not most of those folks don’t really have genuine relationship with their ‘church’.
    It is just as easy to be voyeur/exhibitionist sitting in the pews as it is to do so sitting before a keyboard.
    Thanks for your thoughts (belated as this comment is!), Mark

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