Thursday, August 25, 2011

Healthy Online Neighbourliness

TITLE: Developing Healthy Online Communities
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 25 August 2011

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (James 2:8)

It is a great time not being connected to the Internet world for a week. Time away from the busyness of life offers a wonderful opportunity to connect with people in other ways. We talk. We slow down. We pace ourselves with one another through friendly chats, and honest sharing. Without the distraction of the Internet, we see more of real faces instead of computer screens. We all need a technological Sabbath from time to time. It is an opportunity to say to technology in the face: “Thou shalt have no hold on me.

Interestingly, when we travel, my kids will ask where they can get WiFi. Sigh. I am also guilty of it too. We can take technology away from our hands, but it is harder to take technology out of our minds. Thus, my week of technological Sabbath is only partially successful. We succumb to a periodic search for WiFi signals that are free or unlocked. It is like technology seducing us, “If you want me, search for me.”

For me, there are downsides to not being connected for a week. For example, I missed out on the HP Touchpad fire sale. Announced about three days ago, the highly revered computer company decided to clear its stockpile of unsold Touchpad tablets at an amazing price of $99 for its cheapest model. That is an 80% discount! Of course, at the magical price of $99, the Touchpad became an overnight bestseller. People sit up and pay attention when they smell a good deal. For me, having worked for HP before, it makes me kind of sad to see a good engineering product just snapped up by people looking for cheap deals. Mind you, the cost of manufacturing the HP Touchpad is way more than $99. Some estimates it to be a little more than $300 per tablet. In a consumerist society, the Internet is a great tool for checking out great deals. We just need to be careful of financial scams and frauds. In an age of scamming, spoofing, and spamming, it is getting more difficult to distinguish truth on the Internet. From being selected for a huge financial windfall, to wonderful offers for the Viagra pill, all kinds of trash are being distributed on the Internet every minute.

Since it is hard to run away from technology, try two things. First, embrace it cautiously. Second, be neighbourly when using it.

Credit: Nativity Lutheran Church
I believe that loving one’s neighbour also extends to the Internet medium. James reminds us again about the 'royal law' to love our neighbour as ourselves. This sets us up to look at how healthy communities can be developed online. The central theme is not about our neighbours, but about us being neighbourly. In other words, loving our neighbour has less to do with our neighbours but more to do with our neighbourliness in our hearts and in our actions. Neighbourliness is simply showing attributes of being a good neighbour. I offer three suggestions below for becoming neighbourly on the Internet.

1) No Need to Respond Speedily


Firstly, in an email world, learn to be neighbourly by responding appropriately, not speedily. It is easy to get distracted on the Internet. Sometimes, my train of thought can be interrupted by a sudden email from a person. This is one reason why reading emails should not be done first thing in the morning. A friend of mine says it brilliantly, that reading emails first thing in the morning is like letting others set your agenda for the day. Another pastor also says that his off day was derailed when he received an email. I remember one reason why emails are preferred is because, unlike the telephone, one need not answer emails immediately. A day or two is generally ok and acceptable. We like quick and immediate responses. Unfortunately, some of the worst emails I have sent out are the once I sent out too prematurely. When I do that, I fail to pray enough. I fail to reflect enough on how it impacts the recipient. Being too quick and efficient with email replies can damage relationships. I am still learning that it is better to reply late, but with a more considered response, than to reply speedily, with devastating consequences. The old adage holds true in an email world. “Slow and steady emails wins the race.”

Key Point: Being neighbourly is about showing consideration for our neighbour through appropriate and measured responses, and not simply about getting something off our chest via speedy and curt remarks.

2) No Need to Neighbour the World

Secondly, having an Internet connection that can connect with the whole world does NOT mean we link up with every digital Tom, Dick and Harry. That will be foolish. This is one reason why I am not so bothered about any need to make lots of Facebook friends. I know of some people whose friends number in the thousands. I wonder what kind of relationships is being formed via that social media? Social researchers have suggested about 150 friends being the most optimum for meaningful relationships. Beyond that number, it becomes unmanageable. I feel for those people who are ‘famous’ and when thousands and thousands of people ‘friend’ them on Facebook. Do numbers mean anything apart from generating viral publicity? Some public figures have resorted to hiring staff and friends to manage their friends. Imagine being a Facebook friend of President Obama, only to learn that it is not Obama, but his White House staff who is managing his account. It makes a mockery of anyone trying to boast about Obama being his personal Facebook friend.

Key Point: There is no need to neighbour the world. The world may be reachable through our Internet connection, but that does not mean we must connect with everybody. We are not running for President of the World post.

3) No Need to Notice Everybody

Thirdly, we become neighbourly by learning to notice the presence of God in the midst of people. I appreciate Adam Thomas’s confession of his need to notice God. He writes:
The more time I’ve spent online, the more I’ve had to develop my ability to notice the presence of God in virtual space. This kind of noticing is difficult because it involves practicing being especially attentive to the things that are always there.” (Adam Thomas, Digital Disciple-Real Christianity in a Virtual World, Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2011, Kindle Loc# 487-507)

Being attentive is increasingly more difficult in a world that boasts of multitasking and frenetic connections. When we learn to notice God more and more, our gratitude makes us complain about the world less and less. When we learn to pay attention to the one in front of us, we give honour to that person. We learn to love that person with the attention that person needs. Sometimes, when I am meeting with another person, it can be irritating to see that person fiddling with his phone, talking through it as if that person is more important than I am. Come on. The person on the phone is miles away. I am just a few inches across from you. Isn’t that reason enough to keep your cell phone interactions to a few seconds at the most?

When we see people from the perspective of God, through the Word, we learn to appreciate them beyond simply an email address or a Facebook picture. When we notice people for who they are, and not just on what they do, we practice neighbourliness by giving them the value God has given to them. When we connect with people within our reach, and not worried about others beyond our influence, we give them quality time to connect with us. One of my favourite authors, Andy Andrews has this to say about noticing.

"Remember, whatever you focus upon, increases...When you focus on the things you need, you'll find those needs increasing. If you concentrate your thoughts on what you don't have, you will soon be concentrating on other things that you had forgotten you don't have-and feel worse! If you set your mind on loss, you are more likely to lose...But a grateful perspective brings happiness and abundance into a person's life." (Andy Andrews, The Noticer, Nashville, TB: Thomas-Nelson, 2009, 13)
Imagine what happens when we start noticing people that we can reach and not worry about people beyond our reach?

Key Point: Learning to notice God is a critical role in being neighbourly. 

Learning to be neighbourly is an important process toward noticing God. In a world of Twitter, where individuals tend to become defined by snippets of his/her life, it is tempting to draw conclusions about a person mainly from what he is twittering. In building healthy online communities, time is needed to establish relationships. Treasure that. Use technology to arrange a time and place to meet. Use technology to find the best places to have a good time together. Use technology for administrative and logistical purposes. After that, put that down. Concentrate on noticing one another. Concentrate on being a good neighbour. Focus on being neighbourly. Learn to notice that on the other end of the Internet connection is a person that Christ has died for. That alone is one reason we ought to be neighbourly.

Thought: "A man is called selfish not for pursuing his own good, but for neglecting his neighbor's." (Richard Whately)


sabbathwalk


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