Low-Tech Friendship, part I

Christianity Today recently posted an essay by Wesley Hill on friendship. It raises some excellent points; while I don’t agree with every conclusion he makes, it’s very much worth reading.

His basic premise is that modern Christians have too weak a view of friendship, especially of same-sex friendship, and that recovering a deeper understanding of friendship could benefit the Church in many ways. I completely agree.

Within this conversation, one sphere I’d like to see explored more in-depth is the effect of instantaneous communication platforms – not only Facebook and Twitter, but the telephone and Skype –  on 1) our perception of what “friendly neighborhood friendship” (that is, personal or local friendship) entails, and 2) our practice of friendship. Here are some of my thoughts; I’d love to hear other, better-reasoned ones.

1) What friendship entails

Friendship requires, among other things, communication and presence. Whatever purposes friendship might have, these practices are indispensable. Instantaneous communication platforms (let’s call them ICPs; let’s not call their users Juggalos) enable communication; they also, as FaceTime ads insist, create some sense of presence. I don’t use either FaceTime or Skype; but in the last ten days, I’ve been on the phone with one friend in New York City and one friend in Denver, and hearing their voice in real time did convey a sense of their presence.

We can’t categorically call what ICPs do illusory, because intuition and personal experience show that they do create something. And there are genuine benefits to that something – emotional benefits and relational benefits.

The question is, I think, is there something lacking in ICP-based friendship that could warp our understanding of personal, “local” friendship? I think most people would intuitively answer “yes,” but this is worth teasing out further. Here are some possible distortions I can see:

a) ICP-based friendship could make us see all friendship as a “controlled-environment” interaction

More or less, ICPs require the deliberate initiative of two parties. I determine when I call someone and how long I plan to talk; I determine what I’m going to Tweet and when. I’m also free to silence someone’s call or ignore their text, and [generally] expect that they’ll not be put out.

The idea of carrying on a personal, local friendship in this manner is silly at best. But if we’re not careful, I think there’s a danger of treating personal friendships in the same way. Dropping in on friends unexpectedly becomes a faux pas; the idea of hanging out for an extended period of time without prearranged activities induces nervous tics. Personal friendships can become too driven by convenience, an organism natural to ICPs but toxic in person.

b) ICPs have narrow boundaries of acceptable content

ICPs, and especially social media, have naturally narrow expectations on what we share. Content should be stimulating – funny, moving, outrageous, whatever, as long as it’s not boring. It should also (generally) be harmonious: we don’t usually want to provoke, question, or anger our friends, even if we’re okay with doing all those things to real or imagined opponents.

Taken to the extreme, importing the narrow boundaries of ICPs into personal friendships puts the demand of entertainment and “fun” on every social interaction. Don’t get me wrong, fun and intellectual/emotional stimulation are huge components of friendship. But if two real people spend a real amount of time together, there’s going to be a “boring” element to their relationship. Silence. Conversation about quotidian things without the cleverness of Seinfeld. An inordinate dislike of these things reflects, I think, the influence of ICPs.

They also make people less comfortable with confrontation and healthy debate. Pew Research’s recent findings on the “spiral of silence”  show that social media users are actually less likely to air opinions on controversial subjects, especially if they think they hold a minority view. Healthy friendship involves honesty, mutual sharpening, and even correction; an ICP-grounded framework can hinder this.

Enough for today. Next post, I’ll share my thoughts on how ICPs might hinder the practice of personal friendship.

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