Framing Relationships Online

This is a piece that I wrote for The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) Blog that was originally posted on November 17, 2011. The CRG recently announced that it will be closing and that some of its materials will be managed by either The Alban Institute or The Indianapolis Center for Congregations. Given the uncertainty of how or when the CRG content will be online again, I am reposting this piece here on my personal blog.

I have found it hard to miss the tension in the blogosphere as congregational leaders attempt to discern the pros and cons of social media. From what I’ve seen, there are some deep concerns that go right to the core of how social media are shaping us and our relationships.
socialnetworksTake, for example, the post by Laura Truax as she wrestled with the “foible” of un-friending former and current members of her congregation on Facebook. Her decision was driven by a desire to protect those individuals from the possibility of being witnesses to an emotionally charged online discussion over the topic of sexuality. Or a more recent piece by Gail Song Bantum, a pastor at a church in Seattle, that explores the issue of identity online, and if social media represents a true self or not. Her concerns appear to come out of her personal discernment process regarding how much social media should define our identity versus just being a tool or utility.

Have you noticed, or even felt, these emotions? Have you struggled with finding the “right” approach to engaging and maintaining relationships on social media? Or perhaps you have pondered the meaning of friendship online altogether? You are not alone.

Mark Vernon, a former priest in the Church of England, acknowledges the tension in our online relationships in his book The Meaning of Friendship. Vernon writes that “the anxiety stems from whether the virtual world is a good, safe and honest world in which to get to know and be known by another — or at least whether it is good, safe and honest enough.” Or, in other words, is social media a good framework for cultivating relationships?

To help unravel this question, Vernon turns to the philosopher Aristotle for some guidance. Aristotle concluded that there are really different categories of relationships that we might collectively refer to as friendship. In other words, Aristotle recognized that friendship is more of a framework rather than an absolute — there is no one size fits all.

In a prior post, I began to explore a framework of a different kind that also can inform our online relationships, and that is the emotional framework of trust. The trust framework puts an equal emphasis on both earning trust and giving trust, thus recognizing that trust requires a bilateral relationship between leader and follower.

I have to wonder how much of the tension around social media might be relieved if we acknowledge that it is a framework, and as such is a manifestation of the frameworks of friendship and trust. By doing so we allow ourselves to imagine it as a means by which we can enhance and extend our relationships across time and distance. Vernon concludes that this could serve to reduce “the fear that people are attempting to get to know each other via the one-dimensional medium of the screen, and are instead able to draw on what they know of their friends face-to-face.” And after all, isn’t that what friends are for?

There remains the broader question of how congregations engage in building relationships on social media, and this can undoubtedly benefit from this type of thinking — but that will have to be a topic for another day.

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