When virtual becomes reality


Some years ago a pastor took me aside after a meeting and asked me what was probably one of the most perplexing questions I had ever been asked as a professional communicator:

“Mark, do you think we really need to get a fax machine?”

It stumped me for a couple of reasons. The first and most obvious one was that the pastor clearly did not understand just how out-of-date that question was—most church-related organisations at that point were busy getting their first email addresses. But at a more profound level I could understand his confusion and why there were no simple answers. Technology, particularly communication technology, changes rapidly. People are developing new ways of carrying on conversations of various depths almost every day. How do we determine what is a “fad” and what represents real change? Or, to put it another way, how do we keep from being left behind in a world full of dizzying digital options?

Someone reading this article is saying about now, “I’d be happy to be left behind!” Let me assure you, I understand that completely. There is something inside of me that looks at news of the latest app, the newest online service, the shiniest digital technology and asks, “Why bother?”

Medical researchers have long realised that with age comes a degree of inflexibility. Joints become stiffer, and so less flexible. We become set in our ways—sometimes set in our armchairs!—and our toes begin to look a lot more distant. The same thing can happen mentally. As we age, our ideas about life solidify and we struggle to adapt to new ways of doing things.

Kimberly Brennsteiner is the director of programs at Older Adults Technology Services, a New York-based non-profit organisation that trains adults over 60 in new technologies. She says the older we get, the more chance our interaction can become crippled by “fear of the new”.

“We’ve found that people have a lot of aversion to doing things that the rest of us who are online would do regularly because of this fear, and it is a very paralysing fear that we think holds them back from being able to really use the internet to their full advantage,” she told US broadcaster, Voice of America.

If this is how we feel about the changing world around us, then I can understand why you might feel tempted to leave new technologies to the young. However this is not a case of, “It’s not broken, so why fix it?” Advancing technologies are transforming not only communication but our perception of self. Not adapting to this sort of seismic event risks leaving you not only confused but incapable of making yourself understood.

Life has in a very real sense become digital. There was a hackneyed expression when I started in television journalism 30 years ago: “No pictures? Then it didn’t happen.” The same might be said of our twenty-first century lives. Dinner with friends? Snapchat the dishes. Going on a holiday? Blog the experience. Considering a movie? WhatsApp the options. These might sound like trivial details, but the same can be said for the most significant instances in our lives. Got married? Had a baby? Lost a parent? Tell the world . . . through Facebook. If it’s not online, it didn’t happen.

Internet properties are not only becoming the collectors of our lives, but the curators of our dreams. A marketing colleague tells me that millennials are now using services like Instagram to present friends and admirers with their “ideal self”—collections of images that allow the suburban teenage girl to picture herself as a Los Angeles socialite. What used to be disparagingly referred to as “virtual reality” has now become our actual existence.

But if right now you are thinking we’ve got to return to really knowing each other, you are mistaking a change in method for a loss of contact.

Generation Y has pioneered a new way of connecting with those they value, which I refer to as the “thousand touch relationship”. A quick status-update in the morning; a half-dozen work queries via email; an SMS invite for drinks after work; a late-night Tweet about your holiday plans. Internet-based communications are allowing Australians to build relationships incrementally, rather than by dedicated slabs of time. This observation in no way reflects on the quality or depth of those relationships. However, the modern Australian has become quite used to electronically wandering in and out of the lives of friends and families as though they were simply occupying different rooms of the same house. In one sense, they are: a virtual house with no physical or chronological boundaries to prevent Ivan in Sydney from sharing with Sylvia in Shanghai the social minutiae that make up their relationship. And those who protest that this will not result in the formation of “real” connections may end up displaying all the foresight of the writer of this 1876 Western Union memo:

“This telephone has too many shortcomings to be considered as a means of communication. The device is of inherently no value to us.”

There are four basic trends shaping communication in our online world.

1. Brevity

Conversations take place in staccato bursts, with modern syntax often abandoned for initialisms like LOL, text-based emoticons and mood-setting emoji. The average time spent on a web page is measured in seconds, so articles are generally designed to be read comfortably in 2-3 minutes. The average video is dropping under five minutes, with YouTube advising four minutes and 20 seconds. It’s safe to assume people are no longer watching after that point.

2. Sharing

The Internet of Ideas has given way to the Internet of Interactivity. Opinions might be short but sharing them is a must. Long threads of conversation might have dipped on Facebook, but the king of social networks saw the need to introduce mood buttons last year that allow communities to register more than they just “like” something. The word Share has become as recognised a tool as “Print” and “Save”. After all, what’s the point in finding the perfect Cat-who-looks-like-Hitler photo if you can’t pass it on?

3. Multifaceted

Browser traffic is trending down as apps and “connected” devices take hold. Gone are the days when website developers expected internet users to start at a homepage and digest its content in an orderly manner. Most are just as likely to jump into the middle of the site courtesy of a search engine result or a shared link. Savvy site owners now push their content out through a variety of social networks and online tools. Brands concentrate on developing ecosystems where different audiences encounter their material in a wide variety of ways.

4. Enduring presence

The internet is so responsive to what is going on in the world that Twitter is now a recognised source for newsrooms seeking to understand rapidly unfolding events. And for all the talk of ephemeral content, the denizen of the internet has learned to dip in and out of the various facets of their friends’ lives, following Instagram photos one day, and commenting on recommended videos the next. What emerges is a relationship characteristic which American pastor Timothy Keller refers to as “Always there, always aware”.

The fabric of online communities may appear thin but it is surprisingly resilient, conducting ideas with the rapidity of electricity, capable of conquering both distance and time, and so able to generate a sense of presence that follows a person anywhere they can take their smart phone. The real question is, what are you going to do with it?

Christians, along with all other content providers, have to rethink how they are going to speak to those who are always connected but increasingly likely to communicate in small bytes through closed, third-party systems. We need to make the old scriptwriter’s adage our mantra: “Give them what you want to say, but in a way they are prepared to receive it.”

The methods might be shifting but the message remains the same. It has always been daunting to preach “Christ saves sinners”, though the present openness to communication may mean that the barriers are more digital than physical. The answer is not to retreat to the means we find most comfortable and pray the Spirit will sort it out. God will still call His children, but there is no virtue in Him transforming people despite you. We need to look at those we particularly feel compelled to speak to, and begin by learning their variant of the digital language. It seems likely the world will continue to build their lives and relationships through a thousand little touches. Ensure that some of them are yours.

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