We’re relational beings. Relationships are crucial to our emotional well-being, no matter how introverted we think we are. That’s why sites like Twitter and Facebook are growing so quickly in our culture, to the point of near-ubiquity. Our ability to stay connected with people we never “met” in a traditional sense, or haven’t physically seen in many years, is great. It’s why we read blogs or frequent message boards organized around a topic or group of topics over and over again; because we’ve found some people who care deeply about the same topics as we do. There’s a development of what’s begun to be referred to as “community” there; a common purpose or goal as to why we gather together. But, while it meets the standard definition of community, is it really? Are all these loose connections we’ve begun to form over the last few years really drawing us into “tribes”? It seems to me that there is something fundamental missing in all of this.
Connection. On a personal and meaningful level.
In actual tribal societies, people weren’t related by interests, they were related by blood. There was a commonality not only of purpose, but of genetics. There’s something about family that is weightier than even your connection with your closest friends. It’s the fact that you can never really get away from them. That may be good or bad, depending on your relationship with your family, but there is a fundamental, biological bond that can never be broken. In a real tribe, you can’t opt-out if you don’t like a certain individual. Your very survival depends on each and every person doing a task and working for the common good.
Not so with online “tribes”. Don’t like the one you’re in? Move on and find another, or start your own! Perhaps the one you found previously wasn’t quite meeting your needs, or there was that one guy who’s responses always kinda irritated you. Move along. Perhaps it just took too much time to maintain a presence online, and your participation became more of a chore than a joy (this can especially be the case if you’re the one that started the tribe). The very nature of loose connections allows us to feel as though the people we meet online are transients in our paths.
The challenge I encounter, and I think everyone does to a certain extent, is how much should these virtual tribes really matter to us? For people who, for whatever reason, are separated from their families and real-life friends, online groups focused on a shared passion can be an important source of community. But what about those of us who have wives and kids and friends and others who aren’t virtual, but very physical? I don’t say this to minimize the friendships I’ve made online, but the best friends I have in the world are people who I’ve spent time with in the flesh. Even if I continue to interact mainly with those folks via email or Facebook due to distance issues, the bonds were really forged in person.
I’m sure everyone has heard stories about the growing influence of technology in the lives of people, to the point where, to varying degrees, forsake their families for virtual friends. The transgressions range from checking email on a Blackberry under the table when you’re supposed to be having “family time” at dinner, to texting while pretending to have a conversation with someone, to spending hours every night leveling your WoW character while ignoring your husband and kids. Depending on how far one were to take it, these actions range from mild annoyances to serious abandonment.
I’m not saying that we should be Luddites and refuse to utilize the technology that’s been developed simply because it’s new. While complicating our lives in one area, social marketing tools and other technological advances have simplified in many others. If you had told me five years ago that I could maintain awareness of what’s going on in the lives of over 200 people that I’ve known from high school, college and grad school, simply by logging on to one website, I’d have said you were crazy. Facebook’s made that a reality, though. Blogs and digital distribution have allowed folks like me and millions of others a license to spread our messages far and wide, with the only limitation being the actual worth of our comments. If you write something worth reading, sooner or later someone will find it.
What I am saying is that we often times focus so much attention on keeping connected (with Blackberries and iPhones, tweeting and status updating) that we forget to actually connect with those around us, and those people are often the ones who are supposed to be the closest to us. I know I’ve been guilty of it myself, and you know you have, too. Here are some tell-tale signs that you’re too connected: Ever done some work on a project while you were supposed to be enjoying a week with your wife and kids at the beach? What about taking a laptop into the bathroom with you (admit it, you’ve done it too)?! Ubiquitous connectivity is invading our lives, and causing us to neglect the people who are right in front of us!
Conformity says that we should allow this technological infiltration into our lives, but I maintain that we must resist. Set blackout times on technology, and have those around you set passwords on your gadgets to keep you honest. If you say you’re on vacation, then go on vacation. No cell phones or laptops. This might take some coordination on your part to make sure all contingencies are covered in advance (or just do what I do: when I go on vacation, I go out of the country where I can’t be reached by work). Just make an effort to truly be present wherever you are. Not just in body, but in mind as well.
The key thought behind all of this is simplicity. Ubiquitous connectivity can be helpful, but it can also harm. When we simplify our lives by “unplugging”, we take back the most precious commodity we have: our time. We allow ourselves the freedom to engage our spouse, kids, and friends in actual, meaningful conversation. We open ourselves up to the possibility of impacting our direct surroundings, simply because we’ll notice so many more needs when we look people in the eye. When we reduce our technological footprint, we grant ourselves the opportunity to have a bigger handprint on our immediate communities, to influence those around us for good and positive things.
So, what do you say? I know my challenges with “unplugging” stem from a fascination with technology and cool toys. What about you? Do you have problems logging off? Where does that come from? Let us know in the comments…