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Making Friends in Social Space

Philosophers once theorized that “nature abhors a vacuum.”  People today seem to agree, as they seek to fill the void of social space through online chat rooms, personal blogs, and a variety of networking sites.

But the domain of one’s life is no longer just my space; it’s fast becoming the whole world’s. Think of Facebook … not even a decade old, it now has 1.15 billion monthly active users, including the Pope (with the help of very active interns, that is!).

Responding to this growing phenomenon, some fear its insidious potential; parents, especially, see in this medium a threat to their never-ending quest to exercise vigilance over their children’s social habits.  Why do people feel compelled to post information about themselves for all the world to see?  What drives the apparent need to share profiles and pictures with anyone and everyone?

In the past, personal space was something to be guarded.  To invade another’s space meant getting too close, crossing a boundary that actually curtailed communication; to be that close was considered rude, even disrespectful.  But now, through the marvels of digital communications, “friends” can become immediately present to anyone with a user account and password and can “like” each other (or not!) with one simple click.

Personal profiles are posted as a beneficial way to keep in touch with one another; but predators can surf, too, as they troll for victims or search for identities to steal.  Photographs can reveal meaningful events in one’s life; but employers view those snapshots, too, and an unflattering image now can lead to unemployment.

Social networking via the Internet is not merely a popular pastime for a new generation; it also offers an instructive metaphor with regard to the cultural shift affecting human relationships today.  The thin threads of the “web” that connects people also suggest the superficiality of current interpersonal communication.  And the tangled trap a web creates offers an uncannily accurate picture of the unintended or even malicious connections that online sharing can sometimes produce.

Still, people crave human connections.  Just ask the seminarians who earlier this semester had to maintain a digital blackout during their six-day retreat!  We all want to find a place in the world we can call our own, a place which we can also share with others.

The church recognizes that fundamental human need … and seeks to respond to it.  In fact, the recently announced theme for World Communications Day 2014 is “Communication at the service of an authentic culture of encounter.”

In the meantime, we realize that social networking can never replicate the wonderful mystery of personal identity and the joyful interchange that takes place when actual lives, not just factual information, are shared through a living encounter with another.  To quote the insight of Blessed John Paul II, the rapid development of computer technology increases the facility of communications, but it does “not favor that delicate exchange which takes place between mind and mind, between heart and heart, and which should characterize any communication at the service of solidarity and love” (no. 13).

Facebook is now the social meeting place for much of the world.  It no doubt helps keep people in touch across time and space.  But no number of bytes or pixels will fill the vacuum of interpersonal relationships.  For that, only actual, not virtual, friendship will suffice.

Featured image from WallPapHD.com

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