Sunday, 13 March 2016

Communication, technology and relationships

I wrote a little about this the other week, when I was reflecting on how people 'back home' can best be a supportive friend to those who have gone overseas. I've also often wondered about our current generation where there seem to be more forms of 'communication' than ever before - social media in its various forms (I don't even know what twitter is really for, and haven't yet discovered whatsapp, but I do use Facebook! These are probably not even the latest ones) and an increasing range of gadgets to communicate with. But do people really communicate? And if not, what are they doing, and what do they think the are achieving?

There are many cartoons drawing attention to how foolish we can become, ignoring those around us to look at a post or a message from somebody we barely know. But the sad thing is just how true this can be; I think we have all seen people (including ourselves) make some of those errors. And I know people who get quite irritable if we don't immediately answer our phones (or even worse, if we should choose to leave them behind!)

My challenge is how to maintain relationships at a distance. What is the role of Facebook? Or email? Or any of the online tools? Is there a role at all, or should we revert to sending letters which take months to arrive (if at all) and catching up face to face during the rare times we are in the same place as one another?

I think Facebook does have a role.

On the general site, I like to be able to see approximately how friends are doing, and see pictures of weddings, babies, lovely holidays and groups of friends having fun. I know there is much that such pictures cannot tell me, but I can at least see what people look like these days, and know approximately what significant life events have happened. (It can be quite awkward when, after 4 years overseas you ask after somebody to be greeted by an incredulous stare: 'Didn't you know he died last year?') Similarly, I know friends and family like to see photos of what we are up to. I also post links to charties we are involved with (such as the orphanage where my son lived for six weeks when he was a baby, or the organisation my husband works for). I also keep a small email list of people who like to receive regular short updates and send a few photos and a bit of news every couple of weeks - but I do sometimes worry about spamming people's mailboxes, and given the few replies I receive I start to wonder whether the emails are irritating. So Facebook has the advantage of being on the terms of the person looking at it - nobody ever feels spammed (or at least, I don't think they do). But I would take great care in posting anything particularly personal or sensitive there. My concern is that people (especially the younger generation, but it affects all of us who have access to the technologies) is that it is easy to food oneself that this is meaningful communication. In an age with ever increasing technology available to the majority, there are more and more people experiencing desperate loneliness. Which makes you wonder whether this 'communication' is helpful at all.

Much has been written on this. For example, the desire to see how many 'likes' a post gets, induces a neurochemical response similar to that seen in laboratory rats who are trained to do certain things to generate a positive stimulus. And of course there are issues of online safety, the overlap between the personal and the professional domains and others. This short book by Tim Chester is quite helpful in providing a balanced view of the risks.

I like the groups within Facebook. So for example, a Bible study group can have a 'hidden group' whereby a dozen people can communicate on a slightly deeper level, perhaps sharing prayer requests, challenges which they have encountered in their lives or asking specifically for help and encouragement. I am in a couple of such groups, mainly relating to church or home education, and I find this ability to be a bit more honest with a smaller group of people helpful. It is very useful to be able to ask a small group of trusted friends to pray for something. However, we are still limited to short posts, and people tend to 'like' the post and write a couple of words in reply; it is not nearly the same as really being able to sit down and talk things through.

Old fashioned (and it's funny to write that, given I went through the whole of University without using email) emails between just one friend are good, perhaps my favourite thing of all - these have the advantages of letters, but without the time delay. We can write to one another and instantly the letter is half way around the world, and can be enjoyed. But then these do take more time and effort than short general 'posts' or updates.

I know others who basically accept that they will not be able to keep up with everybody they have been friends with in every place where they have lived, and instead focus on building the relationships that are right in front of them. Rather than worrying about talking with people back 'home', they build a new friendship group in the community where God has placed them. We do try to do this, but I feel reluctant to stop trying to keep channels of communication open with people who are not physically here. Maybe that's also where Facebook can be useful; you can keep in touch superficially enough to make it easier to pick things up at some time in the future. We know where to find one another.

I am aware I haven't fully answered the question I started with, and I imagine that the use of communication technology might differ from individual to individual and from time to time. It certainly is a blessing to be able to ring home, or send photos of the grandchildren, and when I read missionary biographies from a byegone era, I realise how hard things must have been, perhaps in a particular way for the people left behind.

But I am also aware that we can convince ourselves that we are communicating when we are not! We can spend hours responding to things from people we barely know, rather than investing in a small number of meaningful relationships. And I think every Christian who uses Facebook should do so cautiously and prayerfully. I have a number of good friends who have just stopped, for a range of reasons. I miss hearing from them (!) but I also respect that choice.

How do you use social media in a positive and God-honouring way? If you are overseas, how do you keep in touch with loved ones? If you have friends overseas, how do you keep in touch with them?

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