The individualization of communication today – by Lynne Baab

by Christine Sine

This is the third of five posts submitted by Lynne Baab.  Lynne’s new book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, has received strong endorsements and reviews. Lynne is the author of numerous other books, including Sabbath Keeping and Reaching Out in a Networked World. Visit her website for reviews and other information about her books. Lynne is a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister with a PhD in communication from the University of Washington, currently a lecturer in pastoral theology in Dunedin, New Zealand.


I interviewed dozens of people about friendship, ranging in age from 12 to 85, as I prepared to write my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. I heard about a pattern that has significant impact on friendships today.

Susan, 20, finds she spends too much time on Facebook, so she decides to take a Facebook fast during exam time at the university. During her fast, a friend gets engaged, posts the news on Facebook, and Susan misses this information. Oliver, 28, has stopped listening to the voicemail on his cellphone. His calling plan allows for almost unlimited text messages, but he has to pay for the minutes he spends listening to voicemail. His close friends know not to leave him voicemail messages, but some of his acquaintances don’t know that. He misses a party he would have enjoyed a lot because a friend – but not a close friend – left a message on his voicemail. Sam, 35, often doesn’t read long email messages. He prefers three-sentence emails, and when long emails come, he usually can’t make himself read them. On the other hand, Mae, also 35, enjoys writing long thoughtful email to her friends. Sam missed some important news from Mae because it was buried several paragraphs deep in an email, and Sam simply didn’t read beyond the first few sentences.

I call this pattern the “individualization” of communication. The many ways to communicate have resulted in a new pattern where different people engage in the ways to communicate that they are most comfortable with. In fact, I heard a lot of self-righteousness about forms of communication.

“I don’t have a cell phone. I think text messages are ridiculous, and I don’t feel the need to be constantly available.”

“I would never use Facebook. It contributes to superficial relationships. Face-to-face is always best.”

In order to stay connected with people we care about, we have to think not only about the forms of communication we like and feel comfortable with, but we also have to think about the forms our friends and acquaintances tend to use. For some friends, a text message from a cellphone works best. Other friends enjoy IM-ing. Others use Facebook or email or phone calls or even snail mail.

How many different kinds of communication will we have to use in order to stay in touch with the people who matter to us? How many patterns of communication will be need to remember if we want to stay in touch with everyone who matters to us? How will we manage this?

So many leaders and writers are focused on the dangers of Facebook, cell phones and other new forms of communication. I think the challenges are just as interesting as the dangers, and one of the biggest challenges is this individualization of communication. It impacts our ability to stay connected to people we love. If we love our friends, we will need to pay attention to the forms of communication they use, and we will have to learn to use those forms or compensate in some way for the fact that we don’t communicate in the way that they like to receive messages.

Love reaches beyond our own tastes and preferences, in order to engage with people where they are. Jesus modeled this is a profound way. What does Jesus’ kind of love look like in the new world of electronic communication?

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