There’s no doubting the power of social networks. Recently I bought something on Amazon, and was surprised by the website’s invitation to me to share news of my purchase with my Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Quite why I’d want anyone to know that I’d just parted with £12 for a bamboo steamer, or why anyone would be interested, I’m not sure. I don’t think Amazon cares either. As with any other website asking the same or a similar question—‘Did you like this site?’, ‘Want to tell your friends?’…—they just want to cash in on our virtual communities because, apparently, online is where community’s at.
Is it? Are our online relationships really more valuable than our real world ones? Is real community even possible on the internet? I have lots of virtual friends, but taking into account the nature of our interactions—fleeting, two dimensional—I’m not sure that really counts for much.
Making friends face to face can be awkward. I remember Fresher’s Week at university, the first week of term, where new students are inducted into life on and off campus. I flitted from group to group, not wanting to cling to one too fast in case something better came along. I wanted to make friends, people I could share at least three years of my life with. Sometimes connections came quickly, but more often than not they took time: eating out together, going for coffee, sports training, nights out. I must have met a hundred people or more that first week, yet I can count the close friends I made at university on two hands; not much good if you want to sell steamers, but invaluable relationships to me personally.
Online communities are different. They provide an opportunity to connect with people without any kind of getting-to-know-you process. The faceless, wireless nature of them makes this easy. Online, people tend to organise themselves around shared interests. You simply log into a forum as yourself, or someone else, and get chatting. You can share thoughts, opinions, pictures with practically anybody on the web. You can organise protests or a flashmob or start riots through online media. It’s quicker and easier than forging community with physical people in real space, but give me an awkward first conversation over coffee any day.
A common criticism of monastic communities is that they’re disconnected from the real world. Monks and nuns are people who eat together, pray together, and share life together in a tangible, simple and striking way. Often growing their own food, working with their hands, interacting with local communities, they enjoy fewer friends, fewer forums, and possibly a richer experience of everything that God has made.