Having grown up without the Internet, I am often fascinated, not to mention dismayed, by the ways in which the Internet has changed the very concept of friendship. In this post, years ago, I discussed the way in which the "talkie" nature of the Internet makes friendship difficult. (See also here and here.) It used to be that friendship was based on more than just talking and indeed, often was based on not talking--on restraint, on leaving disagreements unmentioned, on focusing on what people had in common. In the blogosphere, we don't get together to bowl, sing, play softball, build something, eat, or run a small, local organization. We aren't doing most of the things that communities and incarnate friendships used to be based on.
Did I really want to know, in the old days, everything that my friends thought about every intellectual, political, and moral issue under the sun? Maybe when I was about twenty years old I thought I did, but deep in my heart I valued some ideological privacy and restraint on both sides. In the blogosphere, we have nothing to do but talk about what we think about everything, and what friendship can withstand that? Sometimes the blogosphere is like something out of Sartre--being stuck in an elevator with people talking forever. Of course you end up, often as not, very nearly hating each other!
But there is more: In the pre-Internet days, there was a largely unspoken notion that God "brings people into your life" and that you had some kind of duty to people just in virtue of having fallen into contact with each other. I don't know how secular people thought of this. Maybe they just let the word "community" cover it. But the idea was there for religious and non-religious alike. The fact that you just happened to work with somebody, just happened to be in the same church or neighborhood, conferred a duty to get along with each other. That, at a minimum. And over time, to develop a kind of affection of familiarity and maybe even a close friendship. One's "own folk" were to some degree chosen by chance. Even going to college had this same quality. Whom will I get as a roommate? Who will be in choir or band with me? By such chance events, or such acts of Providence (however you look at it), many of the decisions of a lifetime were made--one's spouse, sometimes one's lifelong friends, were all selected to some degree by the accidents of propinquity. And one did not lightly throw that out the window. Jones, my neighbor, might be an annoying old buffer, but after all he is part of my community, and I'm supposed to try to get along with him.
So there was a kind of loyalty that was owed to people whom one did not, or did not entirely, choose to associate with in the first instance.
The Internet makes it, I say, flatly impossible to keep on adhering to that same notion of automatic loyalty owed to those one happens to fall in with by chance. A major reason for this impossibility is that, if one includes electronic accidents of association, there are just too darned many people who fall into this category. Obviously one can't feel loyalty and a duty of friendship to every fellow commentator who hangs out at the same blog or Facebook page, including the trolls one wishes would disappear! But it's true even of the people one develops somewhat more of a friendship with on the Internet. There are now too many of them, and the friendships thus formed have too narrow and discarnate a basis (see above) for one to maintain the same sense of a duty to keep the friendship going permanently (if at all possible) or for one to allow oneself to feel the same anguish when something goes awry that one would have felt in the old days about the loss of an in-person friendship.
Worse, fallings-out on the Internet have a way of being far more nuclear than any in-person fight over the same issues would usually be. One is far more likely to find people berating each other repeatedly for alleged dishonesty, misrepresentation, disingenuousness, and so forth, in an Internet war than one would in an in-person disagreement. (And that's at the best. That's when the people involved are sufficiently decent not to descend to threats or obscenities.)
If there is an incarnate basis for the friendship, one has both more resources for working things out and avoiding conflict and also more reason to do so. If Jones has a "thing" about tariffs, he and I don't talk about tariffs once we realize that we don't agree. And if Jones and I are on the same neighborhood watch committee, I can't just drop him and walk away, nor can he just drop me and walk away. We'll be seeing each other for years willy-nilly (if we're mature people and don't drop the neighborhood watch over a political disagreement), so we both have a motive for finding a modus vivendi.
In contrast, it's relatively cheap and easy to drop an Internet friendship without a backward look when something goes badly wrong, and one is often well-advised to do so. One has one's family and other duties in life; one can't go around agonizing over every highly unpleasant falling-out on Facebook or in a blog thread. It feels wrong to take that attitude, but it is often not only right but necessary. Let it go. Don't go back and read what so-and-so said as the last word. Don't send that e-mail. Don't worry about it. Move on. It's a freeing feeling to do that, like getting over an addiction. But those of us who have any gift for friendship also feel, to some extent, guilty about the sense of freedom itself. One finds oneself asking, "Since when am I the kind of person who wakes up in the morning and breathes a sigh of relief that I don't have to worry about 'dealing' with someone anymore, when I previously thought of that person as a friend? Do I not have a duty to be more bothered about this, to try to find a way of fixing it?" Yet on the contrary, one may well have the very opposite duty.
The Internet gives us the interpersonal equivalent of battle fatigue. Just as a doctor must get used to the sight of blood and a soldier in a war zone must get used to the experience of death, just as they must harden themselves to some degree in order to remain sane and carry on, the Internet user must to some degree harden himself to the blow-ups, harsh words, and losses of e-friendship that will inevitably occur. More inevitably, more harshly, more frequently, and often more irrevocably than used to be the case, pre-Internet.
This is a loss. There is no getting around it. It's a blow to our humanity. One can no longer invest each and every human interaction with the significance one previously could. The hardening of the human emotions, inuring oneself to things that are objectively sad, is always a loss, even when necessary.
So it comes to this: I am forced to admit that technology changes us in ways that its inventors could never have foreseen, in ways that no one planned. There was no conspiracy when e-mail was invented, then listserves, then blogs, then Facebook, to make people talk too much, to make them give in to their tempers too frequently, both to create and to destroy larger numbers of friendships, faster, than could have been dreamed of in the years before instant global communication. But that's where we are. It has happened. It's all very well, and in one sense true, to say, "Communication technology is a tool. It's only as good or as bad as the people using it." But in another sense that saying is a bit shallow. For different technologies, sometimes by pure accident, tap into different aspects of human nature--good and bad. The Internet has made us more cranky but perhaps also more generous. Facebook certainly makes me aware of more people's prayer requests. And fund-raising for those in need has never been easier. It's all a big mixed bag.
But one quiet loss that I would mourn, so that the loss will not occur unnoticed and unrecorded, is the loss of the stubborn friendship--the friendship that is the result of Providence and is kept in obedience to Providence, the friendship that tries many ways to maintain itself, the friendship of restraint and loyalty. I will not say that such a friendship can be maintained only in person, by the affection generated and exchanged via voice, facial expressions, handshakes, warmth, shared activities. But I would come close to saying that.
So we try to walk the fine line between being hypersensitive and emotional and being cold and cynical. We pray for wisdom. And we try to cultivate those few friendships with those we have never met, on, perhaps, the old "pen pal" model, that will last a good, long time, that will be broken up by death just temporarily, to be reinstated in and for eternity.