Relationships Unplugged?

This post marks my entry into the Post A Week club, an exclusive group that, like so many online communities, requires little more than signing up, in this case by committing to post to one’s blog once a week. Ironically, I almost missed my Tuesday deadline because my sister is visiting from out of town and I can’t resist late night board games with her.

Balance between real and virtual relationships often eludes me. I try to err on the side of more time with people who are physically present. Many of my good friends live elsewhere, though, and those relationships might wither without the Internet.

As Michael Wesch points out in his From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able TEDx talk, we can technologically connect online with very little effort, but creating true connections is no easier than it’s ever been. Viewing the latest cat video to go viral does not help me understand or care for the other million or two people who watched the same video.

A friend summed it up well once, saying, “One more report on the Middle East, one more TED presentation on happiness, five more posts on the legal blog, three related YouTubes of lemurs. The clickage SO rarely synthesizes itself into a satiety—unlike conversations with good friends.” Of course, she said it in a Facebook message.

Online communities do good work in this world. A woman in Seattle and her soulmate who happens to live in Tampa can meet on match.com. People can encourage sick or dying friends on Caring Bridge. Lives are saved using Ushahidi. And without Facebook I wouldn’t have had dinner with the above-mentioned friend or know nearly as much about my sister’s life during the 358 days a year she spends thousands of miles away.

So perhaps we need to consider the www-ness factor of our online time—are we really spinning a web? Virtual communities can’t substitute for real ones, but they can create and maintain threads we then haul in, hand over hand, until we stand again in each other’s presence, or, if you’re like my sister and me, sit on the floor and get fiercely competitive over a game designed for ages three and up.