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Nurturing friendships in a cellphone world: Two views about communication technologies

Lynne Baab • Thursday November 29 2018

Nurturing friendships in a cellphone world: Two views about communication technologies

My sons represent two significant viewpoints about friendships and new communication technologies. My younger son believes that this is the best time in human history for friendships, simply because of the many options for staying connected. “I can be on a business trip in New York City,” he said, “and I see something in a shop window that reminds me of a friend in Europe. I can pull out my cell phone and flip him a text message. Or I can send him an email or instant message with him. I can post something on Facebook or on my blog that I know that friend will like.”

All those varied forms of contact, he believes, make it possible for us to begin from a point of connection rather than distance when we see friends face-to-face. He notes that the variety of ways to connect provides options for people with different communication preferences to find one way or a few ways to stay in touch that suits them. He is convinced that all of this makes friendship alive and vibrant in our time.

My older son enjoys the variety of ways to stay connected as well, but he has concerns about them and is generally less optimistic than his brother about their benefits. He believes we are shaped by the communication technologies we use the most. He is concerned about the brevity of cell phone text messages, updates on social networking websites and even emails. He believes they nurture glib and flippant communication styles that damage meaningful communication and inhibit depth in relationships, particularly over the long haul.

“Have you ever noticed,” my older son said, “that the actors in movies from the 1950s all seem to talk in rich, plummy tones? They sound like radio announcers, which is understandable because they all listened to hours and hours of radio during the Depression and World War II. Their communication style was shaped by what they heard so often. In the same way, people who watch a lot of TV seem to talk in sound bites and expect everyone to be beautiful. Just watch. People who send a lot of text messages and post short, offhand comments on Twitter or Facebook are going to be shaped by that style of communicating.”

Scholars call his viewpoint “technological determinism.” [1] This school of thought asserts that the communication technologies we use determine the way we use them; each communication technology has its limits, and those limits shape the messages and ultimately shape the person sending the messages as well. Much of the negative discourse about online communication and smart phones comes from the technological determinist perspective. Because cell phone texting and most internet communication eliminate non-verbal cues that convey emotion, technological determinists are deeply concerned that significant aspects of human communication are missing when certain communication technologies are used.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the view that technologies are inherently neutral, that the content we put in them gives them form and meaning. My younger son’s optimism about the all the wonderful ways to stay connected today has some parallels with this “technology is neutral” way of thinking

Heidi Campbell, a researcher who studies the way religious communities and individuals in them use new communication technologies, argues for a middle ground. She notes that people of faith — like everyone else — have always shaped different communication technologies to suit their own needs. [2] The printing press, telegraph, telephone, TV, movies, the internet and smart phones have been, and are being, used strategically to meet the goals of organizations and individuals. She believes that any technology does not totally determine the way it is used. Her research indicates that people bring their own priorities, goals and passions to communication technologies and shape their use in unexpected ways.

Yet, at the same time, she agrees that each form of communication encourages some styles of interaction and makes other styles more difficult. She believes that online communication is excellent for conveying information; however, depth, emotion and intimate connection are harder to convey online. Heidi Campbell believes, as I do, that nurturing deep relationships that have a significant online component requires intentionality and commitment.

Ultimately where we land on the spectrum—of technological determinism versus technology as neutral—is not the most significant issue with respect to friendship. Communication technologies are what they are, and they are what we make of them.

Meanwhile, this series of blog posts focuses on friendship: what friendship is, and what we make of our friendships. It’s my hope that this series (and perhaps also my book on friendship) will help you explore all sides of the spectrum and come out the other side with deeper, richer experiences of friendship in all its fullness.

(Next week: Changing definitions of friendship. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post something new on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column of the whole webpage.)

This is the second series about friendship on this blog. The first series was called "Initiative in Friendships," and you can read the first post here. Just click "next post" at the bottom and you can work your way through the series of seven posts. Here are three of my favorite posts in the series:
         What Mary might have missed                    
         Different ways of initiating                   
         A gift given to me by initiative                             

This post is excerpted from my book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. To learn about what the book covers, look here. I have several dozen copies of the book and I am hoping to sell them at low cost to people to use in groups. Every chapter ends with discussion questions, and numerous groups have used the book and told me it generated great discussion.If you'd like a sample copy to look over, let me know. If you read the series "Initiative in Friendship," mentioned above, you'll get an idea of what one chapter is like.

Here are prices for the United States (postage included):
     5 copies - $25
     10 copies - $40
     15 copies - $55
     20 copies - $70
Contact me at my email LMBaab[at] if you’d like to order books, or if you’d like to get prices for overseas, which are sadly much higher because overseas postage is so much.

[1] “The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan asserted in 1967 in the book with the same title. Neil Postman made a similar argument in 1985 in Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York, Penguin, 2005, twentieth anniversary edition).
[2] Heidi Campbell is the author of two significant books that explore the way religious communities use the internet and other new communication technologies: When Religion Meets New Media (London: Routledge, 2010) and Exploring Religious Community Online (London: Peter Lang, 2005). The opinions attributed to Dr. Campbell in these two paragraphs come from interviews with her by the author, November 14 to 18, 2009.

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