Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 18, 2011

Facebook & “Community” : What Works & Doesn’t Work

Cover of "No Man Is an Island"

Cover of No Man Is an Island

Thank you Mark.

i have a real distrust of facebook. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t on it and won’t friend me so that sums it up. facebook is ego meth (that is the distrust of me). I am on and will friend you. I do not feel i connect with it though. It’s like a boxing ring that I jump into, through [sic -s/b “throw” ] a punch and then jump out.

I think it may be why the [other in-common online group] thing faded. We all know it is not real connection. That’s why I wish I lived closer to Chicago and you all. There is something significant about proximity for connection. When we look eye to eye, we connect. We all connected because we were in circle. I know you know all this. I have stayed in touch with a couple other folks from [name of organization] and we can’t even seem to tolerate a phone call because of the chasm.

My sister is to have a baby soon and I hope to make it to Chicago soon. It would be great to meet up.

I received the above beautiful email (though it is dashed-off and sloppy… no biggie) in the midst of renewing correspondence with a recent but fairly close friend. I had asked if he was on Facebook, and he ducked the question at first, then sent the above response. I felt compelled to share it, because it hit me between the eyes like a shot.

Since my buddy lives in another state, it’s not the kind of scenario where we can just meet for coffee somewhere. Sure, we can pick up the phone, and we have. But whether it’s a guy thing, or an old fogey thing on my part, or a modern busy-ness thing, or just craving the authenticity of regular face-to-face contact (as my friend above is alluding to), I find these days that it’s painfully difficult to maintain and grow a genuine soul-feeding sense of connection, community, and friendship through any mediated or electronic means.

It’s a problem. We manufacture (and get by with) substitutes for intimacy in our lives. We join Facebook and Twitter and MySpace and Linked In and Ning groups and Crackberry and the WordPress or NetworkedBlogs or Blogger communities, …and Amnesty International and Biker Bitches and Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the “street team” for __ (your favorite band’s name here)__ — but we still end up feeling like disconnected planets with no sun to orbit around, or with low quality communications from planet-to-planet. Meanwhile, we know our neighbors less and less, and we move further and further away from our friends, all as we move away from a model of interdependence in pursuit of … of what? I’m still not sure.

But I’m here to confess at least one thing: this hurts. It’s not by accident that Thomas Merton wrote a book 50+ years ago called “No Man Is an Island”. We are flesh-and-blood, built first and most fundamentally for relationship… NOT networking.

So for example, I think AA, AlAnon and the whole recovery movement have got it right in many respects: a meeting is a MEETING. We touch souls. We remind each other in a textured, multi-sensory, and therefore more permanent and deep way that we’re all in the s–t together. (Some deeper than others… with me especially deep in it these days… obviously.)

Maybe the original “capital F” Friends (we call them Quakers) were onto something when they noticed that the easiest way to experience the divine within Creation is to go out amidst your friends, out into the world, and invite the divine into your heart for a little chat, a lovely sing-along, or a meal. It became such a transformative experience that their bodies started to shake, as God “shook things up”, becoming about as real as any spiritual entity ever could.

Christian charismatics understand this idea as well, as do the whirling dervishes in the Sufi Islam tradition, and probably others as well. But most of the rest of us forgot it as we crawled up into our heads, or hid within our protected, over-mediated, solitary lives. “Wherever two or more are gathered…” as Jesus said. Or aren’t you interested in partying with the Creator of the Universe?

So maybe we need to hang onto those old ways of connecting a little tighter now: the bowling league, the after-work volleyball game, the outing to a concert, the sitting (without a newspaper or a laptop) among the “regulars” at the corner coffeeshop (the one WITHOUT a drive-thru). We need to re-evaluate the importance of the Wednesday night book group, or Saturday poker game, or a band rehearsal or bible study. Because if we’re not actually seeing/hearing our friends, family and church fellows or “comrades at arms” –in whatever group or movement happens to be our main source of strength and common purpose– then somehow the soul knows and feel that we’re settling for second best. And yet we get used to it, moving from one isolated, pseudo-intimate moment to another, to another, to another.

Call it “isolation creep”. It’s often a loveless, emotionally and spiritually dry place to live in for extended periods. But still we keep our guard up, for fear of being burned by a real, complicated, flesh-and-blood human. We pick up that smartphone yet again, turn on that tv, persist in our denial that we actually NEED something deeper and more authentic. We substitute even MORE tenuous and tangential memberships and connections, …all the while letting the sense of isolation creep onward and inward.

Am I alone in this, or is this a real thing for y’all?

Maybe it starts to dawn on us that we’re each only diddling our individual egos, taking another narcissistic headtrip on that “ego meth” that my friend mentions above. [ Click that link back there for my friend Dave Zimmerman’s great book on the temptations –technological and otherwise– of narcissism: Deliver Us From Me-Ville. ]

How many of us end up compromising our privacy, our sense of personhood, when — as a necessary byproduct of participating — we become a “target” in someone’s demographic, in their marketing and promotions campaign, all in the name of seeking community? If we are joiners, how often do we open ourselves up to profiteers and liars, who we may not know to be liars because it’s either buried in the fine print, or they started off telling the truth and offering the promise of actually helping us?

Or if we are non-joiners, how many times a week, or a month, do we cheat ourselves out of the good (in this case, friendship and support), for fear of letting in the bad (those who would “target” us, for reasons both good and bad).

I’m not saying it’s all bad. That would be foolish and particularly fogeyish –if for no other reason than this: you would not be reading this right now if not for my WordPress blog and/or my Facebook membership. I’m not even recommending much of anything, other than a vague but intentional pursuit of something more authentic or organic in how we relate to the world. Above all, I suppose I am cautioning my friends (and Friends, and friends-to-be) –myself included.

So I’m going to leave you with this, what Jesus had to say about a proper friendship:

“My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his or her friends. You are my friends if you do what I say. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from Yahweh I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you to go and bear fruit — fruit that will last.” (John 15: 12-16, NIV)

Umm… Is there an app for that, Jesus?

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