When I first connected to the internet from home in the Summer of 1999, I intended to use it to gather information. I saw it as a resource for research. What I discovered was a vast opportunity for connection with other people from around the world. In the years that followed I developed a ministry of outreach to the lost through IRC. I also focused on discipling those who came to faith. It was a wonderful experience. Over time, the way in which people interact on the web changed dramatically. IRC became marginalized; social networking came into its own, and now seems to be the focal point of connection through various venues.
The advantage of social networking over IRC is that it does not require you to sit at your computer for long periods of time, interacting with other users. You can comment or post updates, and then move on, although I think some folks rarely do. They appear to be glued to their screens, using addon applications, chatting with friends, updating status lines, commenting on content, and so on. I choose not to do that. Not because I am better than others, but because I have made a conscious choice to go against the common tide of how people are using the web. With the advent of portable devices it is now possible to stay connected from pretty much anywhere. This is a huge boon for Twitter users, many of whom update frequently throughout the day.
I had to ask myself, do I really want to be “that” connected? I can see the appeal. I can feel the tug to check in on others and to post my own content. Maybe after experiencing the early novelty and inner workings of IRC years ago, I perceive social networking a bit differently than some. It is a great tool for reconnecting with old friends (esp. via Facebook and other sites like it), and maybe even making new friends (esp via Twitter), but if I spend too much time on any of these, what margin will remain for connecting with people face-to-face? Therein lies the rub, from my point-of-view.
Many folks have taken to web use as a natural extension of offline reality. That is, the web and offline are one and the same reality. To a certain extent, I am no different. For example, I connect with parents of kids from my church through a Facebook group. Some choose that platform to communicate important information to me, rather than calling me or emailing me. This means I probably either need to instruct them to use other means, or to adapt to their use and check the group page more frequently.
A few folks are deeply affected by what is posted about them on the web. They put their content out there for all to see, and then when they receive feedback which they do not like, it sends them into an emotional tailspin, not unlike what they might experience if the commenters had said it to them in person. My point? Offline and online have merged into one common experience. Leaders and parents would do well to be self-aware of this characteristic in their own lives, and also perceptive of its influence in the lives of those they lead, especially their children. I am not saying it is all bad. I am suggesting we should be aware of it, and understand the kind of paradigm shift it represents in how we experience life.
At this writing, in the middle of 2009, I no longer participate in IRC, having opted out several months ago. I recently dropped Twitter at least for now. I limit my time on Facebook by not using any of the addon applications, but only posting content or occasionally commenting on the posts of friends. I have set personal limits. Why? Because I know my propensity to throw myself into new ventures with enthusiasm. I am learning to consider first my broader responsibilities to the Lord and my family, and then evaluate the merits of new activities in that light. And that is why I am changing how I use the web.