The Deficiencies and Dangers of Online Communication

One of the chief reasons I began blogging, and why most people began blogging, was because it increased my opportunities to “connect” with like-minded people.  Suddenly, people across the world with unique interests could “communicate” with each other.  The quotes are crucial, because the communal nature of new media raises serious questions about what it means to communicate online.

In his widely read and extremely wise book Habits of the High-Tech Heart, Quentin Schultze makes the following observation:

Such brevity [of information] may be a virtue if the purpose of communication is purely instrumental, such as conveying information about stock market conditions, baseball scores, and weather forecasts. But what if our purpose is noninstrumental and intrinsically moral – such as becoming genuinely intimate with a person or community, conversing about life, sharing in the fellowship of kindred spirits, mentoring colleagues, and nurturing children? Cyberspace is then at best an ancillary messaging medium rather than a prime location for cultivating shared knowing and moral wisdom. The real value of online communication, then, is largely instrumental – such as getting information, sending a message, setting up appointments, and making contact (p. 65).*

The reduction of online communication to purely instrumental means is interesting.  It is also that limitation that new media are attempting to overcome.  Through blogs, videocasts, and social networking sites, individuals are ceasing to view the Internet as ancillary to their messaging ends, but as a useful tool for communicating in every way (hence mortuaries are starting to offer “funeral webcasting” services to families).**

It is not clear, however, why Schultze relegates the internet to the category of “instrumental.”  The obvious and apparently presumed answer is that the internet facilitates communication that is non-physical.  But the obvious answer only hides more questions.  It is, after all, not entirely clear what the physical body adds to inter-personal communication, such that it can’t be accomplished through videochatting.  Why is shared space important for non-instrumental interaction?

For the previous installment of this series, click here.

**I am thankful to Keith Plummer of for highlighting this passage from Schultze.

**See, for instance,

Taken from The New Media Frontier edited by John Mark Reynolds and Roger Overton, ©2008.  Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,  Download for personal use only.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


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