At the end of July, I wrote a post about benefiting the virtual company we keep, wherein I shared my struggles with making sure my online presence is a benefit to others. Then we moved into Dead Theologian month (by the way, wasn't that great?!) and then I kicked off September with a review of Aimee Byrd's Housewife Theologian: How the Gospel Interrupts the Ordinary (and if you didn't win this book in our giveaway, buy it. Now.) But I want to look at the idea of benefiting the virtual company we keep from the flip side, specifically my role in making sure the virtual company I keep is a benefit to me.
Some time ago, Tim Challies wrote an article about using online dating sites. I believe we can apply his words of wisdom regarding romantic relationships to our friendships as well, so I'm using his points of consideration as a guideline.
Pursue the heart. I believe there are two aspects of this point to consider.
First, is my online identity consistent with who I am? In other words, would my family members and church members recognize the online persona I've created? If I have represented myself to be someone I'm not, I may find myself in social media circles of people with whom I have little - if anything - in common. Not that our friends should be identical to us; if that were the case, life would be boring indeed. Still, genuine friendships are built upon common ground. For example, I have many online friends who homeschool even though I do not. We all realize that homeschooling our children isn't a requirement for salvation, but I think it's also important that we respect each other's position on the matter. In my 3D life I would most likely not have a close friend who thinks I'm a terrible mother because I don't homeschool, so why should that be different online?
Second, why am I seeking online friendships? Whether we're stay-at-home moms who yearn for adult conversation, empty-nesters who miss the social connections children bring, or somewhere in between, we must ask ourselves why online friendships are attractive to us. I personally know many women - myself included - who have felt out of place in their 3D lives and been blessed to find a community of online friends with whom they feel more comfortable. Praise God for that! But I must confess that there have been many times when I've allowed my online friendships to get in the way of my call to minister locally.
Move offline as quickly as possible. Among my co-writers here, I've been blessed to share coffee with Lisa and chocolate with Kim. Persis and I meet for lunch periodically and borrow books (confession: I do most of the borrowing). Those times of fellowship have strengthened friendships that began online. Of course there are instances when meeting face-to-face is not possible, but I strongly believe that friendships should not be played out for the entire world to see. Group discussions, silly and serious alike, can feed friendships, but private communication (e.g. email, phone calls) are much more nourishing than posts on a Facebook wall or Twitter feed. It is in these one-on-one exchanges that we truly get to know our friend's heart and mind, and a genuine relationship is built.
Be wise. There's a lot of quid pro quo in social media. It's easy to get trapped into feeling that we must reciprocate every comment or tweet. Through others, we meet people who we feel would make fantastic friends (they often do). Yet we must beware of the endless rabbit trails looming on the internet and social media in particular. We will do ourselves a great favor if we realize that there's a limit to the number of intimate friends we can have. Jesus kept the number of his closest friends to 12. We would be wise to follow his example.
The internet has allowed us to come in contact with wonderful people we would not have met otherwise. And I certainly don't want to minimize the joy of Christian fellowship that can be found in social media. I have received many blessings from my online friends: cards, flowers & calls when my mother died; financial support for mission trips and my husband's job loss; birthday and just-because gifts; and most importantly, prayers, encouragement and wisdom shared. All reminders that each lady is more than a profile picture or a url address. In order to reap benefit from the virtual company I keep, I must interact with that in mind and require those I allow closest to me to do the same.