I have been in big discussions in the last few days – on social networking sites, ironically enough – concerning the truth and reality of relationships established and sustained through social networking. Statistics on the nature of human relationships and communication – saying that most communication is non-verbal, for example, and allegations that these relationships are somehow superficial, have been made in what has been a healthy, friendly discussion.

I have no problem with people disagreeing with me in this issue, healthy discussion can and should involve those who disagree, respecting one another’s opinions whilst engaging fully with the issue. Displaying love for one another in a Christ-like way, yet still confronting the issues head on – and it should be this way with all discussions which take place anywhere – in the digital realm and in the physical realm.

Yet I have also seen in the last week people I respect being involved in discussions on other issues, discussions which I have contributed too, but where the discussion has resulted in people I care about being upset, uncomfortable and hurt. The tone at times has been cruel and hurtful, people caring so much about being right and ‘winning’ the argument, that the core values of love and respect have been forgotten.

I have to say, being honest, seeing people I considered friends upset and offended in this way actually made me pretty angry. Put it this way, I wasn’t feeling too loving or respectful to the people that had treated them that way.

This is where religion, our own personal desire to be right, and our egos, simply get in the way of doing the basic, simple things like loving our neighbour – and, if necessary, our enemy. I fully admit in my own heart that I have felt a lot of these emotions and failings, which have been tough lessons for me to learn.

If we’re going to have discussions on social networking, we need to make sure our conduct there reflects the values we claim to believe in, the ones we claim that we seek to follow. It’s so easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, especially when it’s a topic you’re passionate about.

So we need to make sure that we take a step back sometimes.

You might be able to hit delete, and delete a post – but you can’t take back the sentiment.

Once you’ve put it out there and it’s been read, it doesn’t matter if you delete it – it’s out there, people have responded to it, it’s impact goes on. What can happen then is that you end up having to post an apology, or even worse, lose a friendship over it. You can cause a great deal of pain and suffering to people with even a comment.

C.S.Lewis said pain is ‘God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world’, and that has been proven to be true again. This experience has only served to convince me that the online world, the digital space, and the relationships we find there, are very real – as are the consequences of our interactions there.

The pain that my friends felt through their online reactions was not superficial.

It was not fake.

It was not false.

It was not any less painful than that felt through hurtful interactions with people face to face.

It was real.

To deny that is simply to deny reality.

Indeed, in a positive light, all the friendships I have made in the online space, the relationships I have built up through the digital realm, are all just as real. They happened. They exist. When I met some of those people in person, the emotion felt was not superficial, and connection was not false.

It was real – which brings me to my next point.

I think one of the reasons so many of us are afraid to admit the reality of the digital realm, is that the digital realm exposes truths about us that it’s much easier to hide behind in the physical realm – the realm that’s often termed ‘reality’ as opposed to the ‘virtual reality’ of the digital realm.

One accusation that has been made is that in the digital realm we construct a social self we can hide behind.

But the reality is, we do that anyway.

We all have a social self we present to the world, a personality and set of behaviours that we put on for people – and Facebook and Twitter are often merely reflections of that. That self may represent part of who we are, but it doesn’t represent the entire truth. There’s a self that we hide from people in the physical realm – and we can do the same in the digital realm.

The perception is that the digital realm is the place we go to hide.

There is a certain degree of truth in that, and in extreme cases it probably does happen – but the reality is we hide all the time, even in the physical realm. In one sense, all the digital realm does in this case is to highlight what is already true and make it more real.

I have found that with my own insecurities.

My fears about people’s opinions of me, my struggles with trusting others, my lack of confidence. The digital realm has only highlighted and made more real these insecurities and fears.

When we’re physically interacting with people, it’s a lot easier to hide in one sense. There’s more noise. More voices.

We can use certain language, phrases, expressions, to hide behind – and only very close friends or experts in body language would really be able to tell any different. We might have all these voices going on your head, all these doubts, but it’s easier to ignore them and pretend they aren’t there when we’re talking outloud or others are. We can forget the difficult stuff and ignore it.

But when we’re on a smartphone, or sitting in front of our computer, ironically, we simply can’t hide.

Physically, maybe.

But emotionally – oh no. In that space you can’t hide from the voices in your head or the emotions in your heart – the insecurities, doubts and fears that you have about yourself and your relationships with others.

In that space, they become even more real in one sense.

When we are faced with interaction with someone online and have a big discussion or debate, or are hanging on their response. Perhaps we make an impulsive comment and instinctively fear we might have ruined a perfectly good friendship, or someone makes a comment and we’re not sure what they are really thinking or whether it refers to us – all of which I have experienced – what we are actually facing are insecurities, doubts and fears which we have always had – and which we have about ourselves and people we physically engage with too, we’ve just never had the space or opportunity to acknowledge them.

I would argue very strongly in fact, that not only is the digital realm very real, and the relationships and interactions we forge there completely authentic, true and powerful, but that they actually expose the truth of who we are in way that is even more true than we experience in the physical realm.

Precisely because in the digital realm there is less physical noise, less distraction from the voices in our head, and it’s much harder to run away from them.

If you disagree and think the digital realm is only a ‘virtual’ realm, then that’s your right to believe that. But don’t try to convince me. My reflections and experiences have convinced me without doubt that the digital realm, the interactions we have there, the emotions we feel in those interactions, the relationships we establish there, the people that we engage with in that space, are very real, very true – and not at all superficial.

But before I conclude, let me make it clear – as I have in previous posts – we should never get lost and live in the digital realm. That’s not healthy at all, and not Biblical in fact.

Jesus makes clear that physical community and interaction with people is part of what it means to live a life following God – and we are all called to be part of the communities where we live and fully interact with them.

Building relationships and engaging with people, and local church and serving our communities, and building friendships in the physical realm, are absolutely important and vital to how we live.

If we get lost in the digital realm and only live there, we lose something, because put simply there is something you gain in physical interaction with people that you simply cannot replicate in the digital realm, something that’s part of how we were originally created. God designed us for physical, face-to-face interaction in one sense, and that’s one part of us we should not deny or hide from.

We were created for physical interaction with others, and we are called by Jesus to do that – so we must be engaged with the physical realm.

But the digital realm is not a place we go to escape.

It is simply another dimension to reality, a dimension which exposes truths of who we are in a way the physical realm can’t. It is not ‘virtual’. It is real, it is true, and it’s a realm that as Christians with a missional calling we must be engaging fully with.

That’s where we need to find the digital balance I talked about previously.

So as Christians I would say we are called to be interacting with the digital realm, being an example of Christ-like behaviour in that realm, and using that realm to moblise, encourage and equip people to serve the causes of God in the world – always acting and treating others, even those we disagree with, with love and grace.

Because it is real.

Because what happens there is real.

So in conclusion, I would argue that, ironically, it is engagement with the digital realm, what is ridiculously called (in my opinion), ‘virtual reality’, that in fact, exposes truths about us that it’s much easier to run away from in the physical realm – or what is called ‘real life’.

It’s only by being honest about these insecurities, doubts, and fears, and acknoweldging them, that we are able to enter fully into the process of discipleship that God has for us.

If the digital realm helps us to do that, it can add another dimension to our relationship with God, with others and indeed with ourselves, and actually aid us in the process of becoming better followers of Jesus.

Now, over to you:

What are your thoughts on this – do believe the digital realm is ‘real’ or ‘virtual’? Why?

Do you have a healthy balance of physical relationships and digital ones?

Do you see the digital realm as a missions field, for us to be witnessing to & discipling others?

How can we make the most of the digital realm for the causes of God?


Related posts:

The digital balance

Twitter-God? – Reflections on social networking & church

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James Prescott

Hi, I’m James. I live near London. I’m a fan of good food, comic-book movies, & books. I love to write, and I coach other writers & creative people. Thank you for being part of my community. read more...

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