Virtual Community

My apologies for not writing much in the last week. I think I’m still recovering from being out of town for so long. I’ve got several big ideas floating around in my head for posts, but can’t seem to get anything down on paper lately.

I did want to mention a post I saw this morning over at the Naked Pastor. It raises both excitement and concern for me.

The excitement comes in the form of a project he mentions, entitled “Wikiklesia.” The project seems to be taking the popular “wiki” concept used in the online, collaborative encyclopedia “wikipedia,” to a new level. It claims to be “an experiment in online collaborative publishing.”

Given my two-fold interest in writing, and in the enablement of the individual to pursue his or her goals free of middlemen, I will be keeping a close eye on this project.

The folks who dreamed up this site have hit on a concept near and dear to my heart. I am working to unpack this concept more in a future post entitled “The Illusion of Control,” but the basic thought is this: In the 21st Century, the ability of individuals to control each other is at an all time low. This fact brings with it a unique set of opportunities and challenges, but before the opportunities can be realized, and before the challenges can be met, they have to be recognized and embraced as the product of a sea-change in the way technology, communication, and information are created, processed and distributed.

This gets to the heart of my concern with Naked Pastor’s post. He’s been invited to author a chapter in Wikiklesia’s first online book. He summarizes his chosen topic:

“Being a pastor of a local community, I want to explore how the idea of online community being virtual (not real, but seeming to be real) is not a symptom of the internet, but a condition of fallen humanity that finds expression even in our local churches and congregations. In other words, virtual is not an internet problem, but a human one. I also want to tie in the notion that the principalities and powers find their vitality and expression through the maintenance of the virtual model, locally and online.”

My concern is over the definition of the word “virtual.” Naked Pastor takes this word to mean, well, exactly what the dictionary says it means: “Existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form, or name.”

I agree with his thesis that the dearth of authenticity seen in many Christian (and also, incidentally, in many non-Christian) contexts today has been wrongly attributed to the internet and other technological advances, and that the fault for this problem truly rests in the fallen condition of the human heart. However, I have to take issue with his languaging.

It seems to me that the definition of the word “virtual” has changed over the past decade or so, and that dictionaries and individuals are still working hard to catch up. The dictionary page linked above at answers.com contains a “usage note” reading, in part, as follows:

“When virtual was first introduced in the computational sense, it applied to things simulated by the computer, like virtual memory – that is, memory that is not actually built into the processor. Over time, though, the adjective has been applied to things that really exist and are created or carried on by means of computers. Virtual conversations are conversations that take place over computer networks, and virtual communities are genuine social groups that assemble around the use of e-mail, webpages, and other networked resources.”

I’m sure anybody reading this has no trouble understanding that the “virtual money” you utilize when paying for something with a credit or debit card is very, very real.

In the same way, I have been able to experience very real relationships largely over the very “virtual” media of email, telephone, instant messaging, forums, chats and blogs.

The problem with Naked Pastor’s thesis is that – well – he seems to still view this as a problem.

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding. We seem to agree that a lack of authenticity in relationship is hardly restricted to online communication, and that it is not the fault of the medium, but of the users. Nevertheless, I find all too often that some of the biggest roadblocks to others understanding the nature of my current spiritual journey outside of traditional church come when I tell people my primary methods of learning about God come through online study, blogs and podcasts as opposed to sitting through sermons in church.

Some just can’t seem to understand that “face-to-face” time, while still valuable, is only one of many very valuable forms of communication. I find that my most fruitful and rewarding relationships are able to exist in any medium – that they can be just as genuine over the phone as in person, just as real via email as over the phone, and just as authentic via instant messaging as through email.

Of course, each method of communication comes with its own advantages and disadvantages: One cannot judge body language over the phone, or vocal inflection through an email. But the same is true with face to face communcation – where one cannot always give a thoughtful, measured response to a query on the spot. There have been many times when I have begun to respond to a particularly difficult email with an angry, reactive response . . . only to think better of it and dig deeper to judge why I was reacting that way to words I may well have misunderstood.

In person, who knows what I might have said.

This, then, is the concern I have with Naked Pastor’s post. If he means that “virtual” relationships are not the problem they have been painted to be, then I agree wholeheartedly. However, if (as it seems) he means that “virtual” relationships are a problem that has simply been attributed to the wrong source, I’m afraid I must disagree.

It seems to me that the ongoing communication revolution we have seen in the last days of the 20th century and the first days of the 21st is perhaps the most amazing opportunity for generating real, genuine, honest relationships that has ever occurred, since the day Christ first offered Himself in relationship with each of us.

2 thoughts on “Virtual Community”

  1. Thanks for a well written post. I truly appreciate your critique and concern. I wanna bookmark this for further digesting. Got me thinking!

  2. Pingback: The Unedited Life

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