I Get By With a Little Help From My “Friends”June 22nd, 2012
Of the many popular and not-very-insightful things people say about the Internet, the comparison between “friends” online and those people who actually know our voices or who might show up at our birthday parties is one of the more difficult to contest. Naming all of our Facebook connections “friends,” some have argued, cheapens the designation and confuses the depth of true friendship with the breadth of online relationships, only shadows of their “real” counterparts.
I am sympathetic to this argument, but only to a point. I find it more helpful and more interesting to move beyond simplistic critiques because I think the Internet is a complex social phenomenon that deserves a complex analysis. Part of the Internet’s complexity comes from the fact that to some degree, it reflects our non-virtual society, which we can all admit has an immense complexity that resists easy analysis.
And so, what of our “friends”? My argument is that it’s really ok that we call people whom we haven’t talked to or seen in years, whom we’ve only met in passing, or whom we’ve never met, “friends.” So much anxiety about the Internet distorting what is “real” fails to see the reality of online interactions and, dare I say, their ability to reflect the grace of God in the world. A passing kind word from that girl I knew in 9th grade or an insightful article posted by that guy I met at a dinner party and never saw again do have “reality.” And these things are good. They may not be the ten years of friendship I have with my college friends or the bond I have with people who grew up in my neighborhood back home, but they are still good and real. And my faith tells me that in their goodness, they participate in the life of God and can, in their small ways, open me to God’s grace.
Instead of fearing virtual space for its vices and the ways it may threaten what we know to be true in our non-virtual lives, we should look within it for moments of grace as well as sin. The Incarnation is our true teacher on this point, a constant reminder that God has come into the world to be grace in the midst of brokenness. This same God, incidentally, says to the world, “I call you friends” (John 15:15). Before we dismiss our mouse-clicks and keystrokes as fake versions of true friendship, perhaps we should let ourselves be surprised by the reality we find online, however new or strange. After all, with the Incarnation as our center, we should always expect to find God in the most surprising of places.