As people made by an intentional Creator to have bodies and to live in physical places, it’s likely our most meaningful and reliable relationships will be embodied and proximate. Insofar as social media or digital technology helps supplement these embodied connections…or maintain relationships in seasons of physical distance (e.g., Skype or FaceTime), we can embrace their relational potential. But virtual connection should never replace embodied community. Our lonely cravings to “find our people” will not be satisfied through screens.
Over the last quarter century, the internet and social media have transformed our understanding of community. At first, it seemed like a promising transformation. The geography-transcending ease of online connection made it possible to quickly find people with shared passions and interests. Communities started forming around every conceivable pop culture or sports fandom, political perspective, social justice cause, hobby, fetish, philosophy, or religious inclination.
Now, with the aid of tailored-to-you algorithms, search engines, and niche subreddits of every sort, it’s easier than ever to “find your people”—whatever you want “your people” to be.
The impulse isn’t bad. To be human is to long for connection with other humans. And yet as Jennie Allen’s recent book and Drew Holcomb’s recent song (both titled “Find Your People”) suggest, the longing is increasingly pronounced in a digital world more connected than ever but somehow simultaneously more isolating too.
Why is finding our people so hard today? Because we’re looking in the wrong place. You’ll find oodles of fans, “friends,” followers, subscribers, and avatar interlocutors online. But most likely, you won’t find “your people” there. At least not the ones who will transform your life in positive and long-lasting ways.
Internet Community Can Be Great
There are positives to the possibilities of online community. For people coping with rare or chronic illnesses, it’s never been easier to find communities of support and shared struggles where tips can be swapped and mutual encouragement offered. For trauma or abuse survivors, persecuted religious minorities, or other marginalized or vulnerable groups, finding community online can be a lifesaver.
Even something like The Gospel Coalition likely wouldn’t exist today were it not for the internet’s knack for fostering connections and forming tribes (in this case connecting broadly Reformed people who share a certain theological vision for ministry). TGC is one of the millions of examples of nuanced and specific corners of the internet that sprung up once people could experience that “you too?” discovery of like-minded solidarity on a previously impossible scale.
The internet has allowed me to make connections with kindred spirits who became trusted friends—people in other parts of the country or world whom I otherwise could never have known. Yet in each of these cases, what might have started online eventually led to an in-person, offline connection: meet-ups whenever possible, even if only once every couple of years when we’re in the same city or at the same conference. This layer of embodied reality has been indispensable to the relationship’s health long-term.
Physical Community Is Better
In spite of the benefits and affordances of online connection, I’ve become increasingly convinced that physical, proximate, in-the-flesh relationships are far, far better for us. Screen life isn’t real life, and virtual relationships—while beneficial in some ways—are no substitute for incarnate relationships.
Consider the rising rates of loneliness in what some have called a loneliness epidemic. In a world where it’s so easy to find whatever people you want to find (online) or join whatever hyperspecific niche community suits your interests, why are people lonelier than ever?
Perhaps it’s because the more human way to form a community isn’t around shared interests, in virtual reality, but around shared place, in physical reality. In relationships that help us grow, maybe proximity matters more than affinity.
To be sure, proximate relationships are harder and more painful. It’s much easier to go online for on-demand doses of relational connection, on your terms, with a bunch of contacts who will affirm you and give you the intoxicating experience of feeling “seen.” But feeling seen is different than being seen. And being seen is, in the end, less vital than being known. My contention is that local, in-the-flesh relationships, while potentially more of a headache, are where we can actually be known: embraced, prayed for, cared for, cried with, seen in the eyes, challenged face-to-face, received in the fullness of our fleshly fragility.