Friday, 26 July 2013

Living in Community Part 2

As I said in my last post, I truly believe that we are all born with a desire to know and to be known. We don't want to go through this life alone, but instead we want people alongside us to cheer us on when we're doing well, and to be our shoulder to cry on when things go wrong.

But, what about a virtual shoulder?

We live in a technically charged world where Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the norm, and behind all that are dozens of other ways to connect with people online - chat rooms and forums still exist, as do blogging communities and YouTube Channel subscriptions. These days, it's nearly impossible to feel lonely. All you need to do is put up a status or throw out a tweet, and you're likely to get some response. That's the point, right? To connect with other people? I mean, if the purpose of tweeting were to keep your thoughts to yourself and not hear from anyone else... well you probably wouldn't even bother. That's what diaries and journals are for.

Statuses and tweets are one thing. They are quite public- most of us have family members and co-workers on our Facebook friends list. Not to mention our spouses. It isn't necessarily the most appropriate place to "vent" or ask for advice. I've noticed a growing number of individualized groups however, where like minded people will "gather" and have a place to discuss their lives. These people might all share an interest in eating a certain way, or have similar values with how they raise their children and choose whether or not to vaccinate. (Side note - Wowzers is that ever a hot button issue these days!) They might all just be Moms, or more specifically Moms who cloth diaper. Some of these groups are even "Private" meaning that only the group members can read their posts. It creates the feeling of a safe place- somewhere where they can be honest and not worry about the wrong person reading their rant about how their sister in law ruined their wedding day.

I am all for a safe place, and as I wrote in my last post, I will happily encourage any kind of community where you can be known and feel comfortable sharing your deepest thoughts. I have to be quite blunt with my thoughts here though, and say that community vs. online community is like comparing apples to oranges. They are not the same.

Now before you all get our backs up about this one, I want to be clear. I am not saying that these individualized groups are bad. I am a part of a few myself. I understand the value of having the ability to ask a question and have a number of different perspectives replied within minutes. I think it's great, actually! I know a lot of first time Moms that have found mom's groups on Facebook to be completely invaluable. I'm all for it, as long as the value lies in the advice given, not in the solace found in a sea of loneliness.

Real community and face to face friendships will always win out over the substitution of an online community. Because friends, that's what it really is - a substitution. The danger of this substitution is that these people don't actually know you. They know your name and profile picture, and through a number of your posts and comments they might get to know the basics that any acquaintance would know - your husband's name, how many kids you have, what your occupation is, whether or not you hate your (insert family member's name here) They don't know you. They don't know why you have always had a hard relationship with your mother, or why you have trouble trusting your boss. You're not going to tell them about the one time you were date raped as a teenager, and that's why you have trouble being intimate with your husband. They don't know your hardships or your triumphs. They don't know when you are being too hard on yourself, or too hard on your husband. All they know is the snippet you choose to give them. Anyone can paint a picture that deserves affirmation and consolation. Anyone can type out a post that everyone will agree with and "take your side"

Dangerous territory.

If one of my best friends called me up and told me her husband was being a jerk, and that he was selfish and how "he always acts that way", I would probably probe into the situation a little more. I would remind her that her husband is not selfish, and ask her where all this was coming from. In short, I would hold her accountable based on what I know of her and her marriage. A post like that in a group or forum? It would likely be flooded with dozens of affirming words, and virtual pats on the back. Exactly what someone needs to feel justified in their anger. Exactly what they were looking for.

Even when the interactions on these groups are all positive - it's all about telling happy stories and sharing pictures of our lives... even then I still feel cautious. This substitution for real community can be dangerous because it fulfills that need we all have to be known. It satisfies the desire we have to be in community and have close friends because we feel like we already do. When that hunger for friendship has been satisfied, we have no reason to seek out real community. 

This friends, is such a shame, because it's like having a craving for a rich, moist, chocolatey brownie, and choosing the low calorie, no sugar substitute (you know the one- it's brown, but you're not even sure why because you can't taste even a teaspoon of cocoa in it) You need to be careful, because sometimes the icing looks the same, and so you can easily be fooled. Sure, it might satisfy the craving enough to prevent you from driving across town for the real thing... but that extra effort is worth it. When you see them side by side there is no contest. There is nothing better than sitting down with one of my best friends at a coffee shop, or at her kitchen table and spilling our hearts out to one another. Nothing.

Dang, now I want a brownie...

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