Can online digital platforms ever replace real community?

The answer from sections of the platform at the #exploringbelief conference that I attended a few weeks ago was a resounding no!

I am inclined to agree. Justin Brierley, of Premier Radio, reported that the famous Christian theologian, NT Wright, in answer to a listener’s question on the ‘Ask NT Wright Anything’ podcast, said that he couldn’t ever possibly be the listener’s pastor (the person who cares for you spiritually) outside of the context of face-to-face community. So why is that? And does that mean that online communities hold no value?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, noted in his address during this year’s William Temple Lecture: “At its best [social media] connects people. It provides spaces for people to explore and discuss, which they might not have access to in real life. For many, many people social media has provided solace, connection and community. The housebound, the disillusioned, the lonely… and many other groups…“

The problem I believe, however, within the current culture of social media, is a lack of accountability. And this is a problem when it comes to building real community. Populist opinions and culture become entrenched positions. Thinking is done within silos and difference in opinion is quickly translated into polarised positions filled with hostility. Mistakes aired online are unforgivable and leave no room for repentance, reconciliation or restoration of the one who made them. It’s ‘communication without relationship’. A bit like online road-rage.

Somehow, we’ve become a judgemental online society who have lost the desire to discover the richness of others’ ruminations and the ability to relate. Where is the communication of value of a person, regardless of their views? During his lecture, Justin Welby made the point that the translation of relationship across cultures has been lost, giving no room for ‘horizons of understanding’. Those horizons of understanding are the thing that personally I really value.

So, can those horizons of understanding happen in an online world? Yes – to an extent. If those who are involved in a conversation are truly willing to hear one another, rather than simply wait for the other to stop ‘speaking’ so they can have their say. But – and it’s a big but – it’s only as I live in close community (and by that, I mean close proximity in the real world) that people get to see who I really am. I don’t have the option of keeping up the good face for a short time. People get to see me ‘warts and all’. But unlike the online ‘road-rage’, it’s a place where shades of grey exist and discussion, questioning and an arm around the shoulder can happen. It’s the place where we get the edges knocked off, our character may be developed and we are able to recognise the value of interdependence, rather than independence.

Communication without relationship reduces our world and our ability to develop as individuals and communities. We each have different strengths and abilities; ergo, we each have different weaknesses and disabilities. We are different from each other, so we need each other! We need the annoyance of someone challenging our lived behaviour and our thinking. But we also need the safe environment in which to explore positive change and the encouragement of others along the way. Recognising this brings strength, the opportunity for personal development and deepening of relationships. Interdependence, while an unpopular concept, is necessary if we are to build communities that are rich in ideas, where people feel that they can contribute, have value and belong.

Can online communities be a like-for-like substitute for this? I personally don’t think they can. It’s just too easy to fake it…

Elspeth Paisley

About Elspeth Paisley

Elspeth is FaithAction's Head of Communications.