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.
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:
- 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
nunchukskills (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.
- 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.
- 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.
Thoughts?(Photo credit: My tech loadout in my