5 Truths About Online and Offline Relationships

offline and online relationshipsAfter publishing the post Online Friendships: Real or Illusion? last week, several of you posted examples of meaningful relationships that developed through social media. Those stories plus other comments prompted some new thoughts on this topic I’d like to share with you…

1) Status updates are shallow. The basic function of nearly every social network is the public “status update.” If my only interaction with a person is broadcasting my status updates to everyone and reading the status updates that person has broadcast to everyone, there is virtually no relationship there. All we really have is some very superficial information about each other.

2) The real power of social media is in the personal interaction. Status updates have very little relational value in and of themselves, but they often serve as the springboard toward personal interaction – a comment, a discussion back and forth, a private message, an offer to help, an invitation to meet offline. This is how meaningful relationships form – when we listen to others and respond by offering a part of ourselves. In every example of a meaningful relationship that developed from social media which people shared in comments, someone took the initiative to personally engage with the other person.

3) Relational depth spans a continuum. Most people fortunate if they have even a handful of “3 AM friends,” that is a friend you could call any time day or night for help. But that doesn’t make the relationships we have with everyone else meaningless. Our lives are full of extended family, co-workers, neighbors, people we worship with at church, and people we serve with in various organizations who span the continuum between “good friend” and “that neighbor from down the street who I always see walking his dog.”

4) Online relational depth spans a continuum too. Social media certainly gives us the opportunity to connect with many more people than ever before. Obviously, I have no relationship at all with the vast majority of the 60,000 people who follow me on Twitter. And even most of my Facebook “friends” are probably better described as acquaintances, but there is no neat little dividing line between friend and acquaintance, only shades of depth and engagement.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that…

5) It’s the engagement not the medium that determines the depth of a relationship.

If we’re honest about it, aren’t most of our offline “friends” also acquaintances – neighbors, co-workers, church members, etc – with whom we occasionally exchange impersonal status updates?

It’s those people – both offline and online – with whom we are intentional about listening to, responding to, reaching out to and helping who are our friends.

Your thoughts?

photo by: Julie McLeod

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, elder of CypressMeadows.org, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.

7 Responses to “5 Truths About Online and Offline Relationships”

  1. What about negative comments? As a Pastor, social media is very dangerous for me in the sense that what I post, somebody will inevitably be offended (even if there is nothing clearly offensive in the matter). I find it challenging to post anything on Facebook without somebody managing to shoot me down or get upset. Relational engagement through social media, in my experience, tends to lead to people being able to tear another down in a safe way. Suddenly, it becomes much more confusing about the depth and significance of social media. When engaged in conversation through comments and the like, we often end up with people saying thing that would be "socially unacceptable" face to face. Suddenly, we begin wishing that people were hitting "Like" instead of adding a "Comment".

    • PaulSteinbrueck Aug 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm

      Hey Terry, I'm sorry to hear that you feel social media is a dangerous place for you. This is a great question. I think I'd like to write a full blog post to discuss it.

      • PaulSteinbrueck Aug 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm

        Good. It'll probably be next week some time. I've got another topic I want to hit tomorrow.

  2. I enjoy using social media for ministry purposes. It is true that there are times that someone may find something I post as offensive, but I evaluate their comments by the criteria of did I post a Biblical truth that they didn't like? If yes, then they will just have to get over it or delete me. On the other hand, Did I post my opinion without any Scriptural ground? If so, then I apologize for the offense and clarify that it is only my opinion and not a truth or a fact. The thing that is tricky about social media is that what I mean and what someone else things I mean may be completely different. We can't see body language, facial expressions, or voice cues on facebook.

  3. A person who has a tendency towards being sarcastic, may not understand a person who has a tendency towards being silly. When we don't know someone personally, we may overlay their comments with our own personality and way of thinking. This can be good if you have a similar personality and bad if you are completely different. We don't all think the same and what we mean to say and what people actually hear may be yards apart. When I first started my facebook, I came up against the "understanding gap" several times and found that many times a simple "I'm sorry, what do you think I mean by what I posted? or what did I say that offended you?" Even face-to-face misunderstandings occur, so that is something to consider.

    • PaulSteinbrueck Aug 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      Good points in both comments Tessa. You're right that communicating with just text can be difficult. It takes extra effort to listen well and ask clarifying questions rather than jumping to conclusions, and a lot of patience when dealing with others who do not do those things.

  4. "3 AM friends,” – I would be impressed if I knew someone that had more than 2 even 1 would impress me. I called by a friend years ago at 2 in the morning and I did not even ask why. Found out it could have waited but when someone calls to ask if you can get there in a hurry one does not ask too many questions other than be there as soon as I can. Isn't that the way it should be?