Archive for February, 2014

Online and Offline Communication: Emphasizing the Positives

February 27, 2014 Comments off

Today’s technology offers a wealth of new ways for people to communicate. It’s possible to interact with others in places or circumstances that would otherwise have prevented it. On the other hand, being with other people in person is still just as possible as before, and it has benefits of its own. This is all good news, but it seems to me that people often (and perhaps unintentionally) pose a false dichotomy between online and offline forms of social interaction.

I think it’s clear that both online communication and real-world presence are important. I don’t think that’s even a new insight; it’s just common sense. It seems obvious to me that it’s a good thing that people who are separated by geographical or other barriers, and probably wouldn’t otherwise know about each other’s existence, can communicate with each other, exchange ideas, and form relationships. It seems equally obvious that it’s a good thing to be physically present with one’s fellow human beings. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in today’s world, both are necessary.

Consequently, it is important not to pit the two against each other. It’s true that online communication has advantages that cover the limitations of in-person communication, and vice-versa. However, we need to be able to articulate what’s good about one without using the other as a contrast. That sort of explanation isn’t inherently wrong, but highlighting the pros of one thing and the cons of the other can lend itself to an “X is good and Y is bad” sort of simplification. If both online and offline forms of social interaction are important, we don’t want our discussion of one to make the other one look bad.

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton provided a good example of how to do this right. Last month, he celebrated Mass at St. Mary’s while visiting Ironton as part of Catholic Schools Week. Part of his homily was about his travels through the diocese and the importance of meeting people in person. He stressed how good and necessary it was to be present with other people, and in particular, for him to be present to the people of the diocese. What he did not do was tear down online social networking, to admonish us to put down the phones, step away from the computers, and go interact with people for real. I don’t remember if he even mentioned online communication at all. In fact, I had the chance to chat with him for a couple of minutes after Mass, and he made some comments to the effect that computers and the Internet were very good things, useful for evangelization, and so on. Clearly he sees the value of both kinds of interaction, and I was impressed by his ability to stay focused on the positive.

This is the attitude that we need to have when talking about how we communicate. Both online and offline interactions have their drawbacks, but we shouldn’t need to use those drawbacks in order to discuss the positives. We should focus our attention on the good, instead.