This is a revised and updated version of an article I originally published on my blog in 2010.
I love the Internet. Some people might say I spend too much time online. That may be true. The Internet can be a dangerous place. Even if you stay on safe websites, it can become an escape from the real world.
I especially enjoy spending time on Facebook. It has become an efficient way to keep in touch with friends and acquaintances. I can get regular updates from ministries or organizations in which I am interested (sometimes daily or several times per day). My church very effectively uses it to broadcast announcements and updates, and our church’s online group is a great place to share prayer requests.
Yet, some people have an exaggerated positive idea about Facebook and other social media. I have known several Christians who claim it is their primary source of fellowship. I have also read blogs where people talk about having online accountability partners. It sounds good, but it is wrong.
Facebook, or any other Internet resource, is not a valid source for friendship, fellowship, or any other kind of close relationship. It is an excellent supplement, but it should be secondary to real-world face-to-face relationships. Getting your fellowship online is like taking vitamins or nutritional supplements. Taking vitamins and supplements is a great idea, as long as you also eat healthy food, get regular exercise, and take other steps to care for your health. Likewise, social media can be a great way to supplement your real-world relationships. However, it is emotionally and spiritually dangerous to build your entire social life around the Internet.
I currently have 383 friends on Facebook. (Maybe I should cut a few out; according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, most people can only maintain about 150 casual friendships.) There are a few whom I have never met in person. There are also several whom I would probably have no, or extremely limited, contact with now, if not for the social-networking site (including distant cousins or friends from school and college). Then, there is a group of people I see in person on a regular basis: family members, a handful of co-workers, people from church, and close friends.
Despite having so many opportunities to stay in touch with all of these people online, I cannot think of Facebook as “fellowship.” A good supplement to fellowship, but not the real thing. Here is why.
Most studies find that the vast majority of communication is nonverbal. Suppose you see me in church; you say, “Hi, Mike, how are you?” I might say, “I’m OK.” Do you believe me? The tone of my voice, my facial expression, and my posture will tell you if I mean, “I am doing quite well, thank you. Everything in my life is good,” or “I am miserable, I feel lousy, but I really do not want to talk about it.”
Online, you will not get those nonverbal queues. I can continue to pretend all is well. I can edit myself online to make certain I project the image I want you to see, not necessarily the one that is true. If you see me in person, you are more likely to know if I am being honest or if I am hiding something.
If you see me in person on a regular basis, you have a chance to know the real me. Once you know me in person, you can know more of the background of my life when you read my posts, either on this blog or elsewhere online.
With people who know you in the real world, you cannot create a fake persona. Online, you can pretend to be the person you want people to think you are. That can be very different from who you really are. You can hide your real hobbies and interests online. You can pretend you have it all together, when in fact, you are crying inside. The people who see you on a regular basis know if something is wrong. The people who only know about you through the Internet might think you are a spiritual giant, when in fact you are living in emotional, spiritual, or moral defeat.
So, if you have been relying on Facebook, Twitter, or any other online service to provide “fellowship” for you, step away from your computer and turn off your cell phone. Get around people who live near you. To my Christian readers: Get more involved in church. Find people who will care for you and spend time for you IN PERSON, not merely online. You may even need to consider taking a fast from the Internet, if it has become an obsession.
It is great to be able to keep in touch with people who live far away or whom you can only see once or twice a week due to your busy schedules. But, make time to be with with other people, in person. Find real friendship and fellowship in the real world, not in the virtual universe of the Internet.
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.