Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Virtual Community" Again

This was originally written for in response to Scott McKnight's critique of the video interview I did at the National Pastor's Convention. Anne Jackson also offered her insights on the issue here.

Scott et. al, thanks for all your comments and push back. Always appreciated.

Clearly we’re playing with semantics here. I don’t say that dismissively. Semantics matter—some times more than other times. I’ll let others judge whether it matters here. It may be that we agree after all.

First, my language in the video was less nuanced than it might have been in written form. That is my tendency in a spontaneous oral interview. I will try to be more precise here.

When I say that “virtual community” is not “community,” that does not mean it has no value. As I indicated in the interview, I know that all kinds of deeply meaningful connections and interactions happen online all the time. I have experienced them myself. Some may want to call this “community.” Fair enough. I just don’t call it “community.” That is not intended to dismiss or demean any one’s experience online.

I play with semantics in an effort to help us see that “virtual community” and “unmediated community” are not interchangeable things. In my opinion, one is actually better than the other. The reason is that "virtual community" occurs primarily on one frequency of the human experience. It is mostly a disembodied, and largely cognitive, connection. This is not a bad thing, it’s just not as valuable as unmediated community, which involves the entire range of the human experience—physical, non-verbal, intuitive sense, subtle energies, visual cues, acoustic tones, etc. These are extremely powerful things that should not be quickly dismissed as "nice but not necessary."

Most of us see these ingredients as essential for healthy marriage and parenting. It’s the reason no one extols the virtues of online parenting or the value of sex with your spouse in a chat room rather than a bedroom. The same is true of community. For me, community is a sacred and powerful institution, and I prefer to treat it in the same spirit as marriage or parenting.

Another way of saying this is that virtual community is like playing the guitar with one string. You can make music; it’s just not as interesting or as good as music on a guitar with six strings.

To observe that “real” community is worth more than “virtual” community may seem rather obvious to some and thus not worth stating. However, there is a growing legion of young people who can scarcely tell the difference. A subsequent rift is emerging between parents and teens because of this very issue. It will only become more complex in the years to come. We gloss over this distinction at our own risk. I hope that putting words to these things is actually freeing for us.

Finally, I’m not against virtual community anymore than I'm against the wind and the tides; I’m just concerned that too many of us grant it virtues it does not possess. This undo esteem can undermine the profound and lasting impact of an incarnated and embodied Gospel.


Mark Brown said...

I founded and lead a virtual community within Second Life that now has grown to 6 services, Bible studies and numerous social and pastoral interactions each week. I really like your comments Shane as you are questioning the 'progress'. It is out of such activity that we start to refine our offerings, develop a more thoughtful ecclesiology.

Interestingly my motivation for doing ministry online is a desire to be incarnational. To head to a strange land, pitch our tent, learn the language and offer Christ in the midst of that new place. I believe that Christ is not limited by physical space and can magnificently work within any environ including the virtual.

I have written a couple of short papers that might interest you. The first is called 'The Digital Revolution and the Church', the second is 'Christian Mission to a Virtual World'. Both can be downloaded from my blog at:

I would be interested in your thoughts and further questions.

God bless!

Rev Mark

John said...

Hi Shane -

Great thoughts here. You have voiced some of what I've been thinking about as of late. Having spent almost a year at Swiss L'Abri since 2006, and heading back there in just over 2 weeks for an extended period of time, I have both experienced and thought about intentional community, and how that could translate into a "virtual" community. I don't like using "virtual" in place of "real" community, because it does make online community sound like it is less than in-person community, or at least not "real community." I don't want to constrict a definition of community.

I find this conversation interesting because one of things I will be seeking to do during my time at L'Abri will be to establish an online community where people (both L'Abri alums and not) can engage on a heart level and continue the reality of life that we find at L'Abri and other places in the world. Feel free to stop by and join in/start conversations when the new website goes live near the end of August.


Jeffrey said...

From a communications perspective, I think it is important to look at the work of Joseph Walther's "Social Information Processing Theory." He closely examines the development of relationships using computer mediated communication. It is a bit technical, but agrees with some of the points you have made in your writing.