How R U today?

Does twittering, blogging, Facebooking, texting and e-mailing really help us to connect to people, or is all this technology getting in the way of real relationships?  Alison Hull investigates

I cannot be the only person who has smiled wryly when observing someone in the company of someone else who is also chatting on a mobile or texting. What is wrong with relating to the person in front of you?

The truth is, we are social creatures. And we are also very busy. For many women, their friendships are made with other women going through similar life experiences – so if you have children, you make friends with other mothers at the school gates.

But once those years are past, or if we are working and so arrive at the gates in a car, how much time do we have to relate face-to-face, and what about relating to all those people we know who don't live close enough to meet up regularly?

I work from home, and from time to time, meet a friend for lunch or a coffee. But most of my friends are ridiculously busy, just as I am. So often our friendship is maintained via e-mail and Facebook.

Facebook, in particular, allows me to boast a huge number of friends (around 300 at the last count). It is also (along with e-mail) the best way of relating to men. Men – like all those friends I had at university and since – do not pick up the phone. But they do e-mail and many of them do use Facebook.

As a freelance worker, I find Facebook is a lifeline in a working life that can otherwise be quite lonely.  Others agree: Clive Price says, ''As a freelance writer and editor working largely on my own – on ferries, trains and in coffee bars – Facebook is where I have my ‘chats by the water cooler’. More people communicate with me there than they do in the pub or the church.”

I notice that, amongst the people on Facebook who are often available for conversation, a lot are freelances who work from home. It helps with the isolation. Facebook relationships may not be perfect, but they are better than no interaction at all.

And they are good for keeping relationships alive. Pat, who works part time, comments, “With people with whom I have a meaningful relationship in the ‘real world’, I see Facebook as another way of keeping in touch, especially with those who, for whatever reason, I don't get to see very often. I am also friends with people on the periphery of my ‘real world’. With them it is just a way of touching base occasionally, seeing what they are up to.”

Catherine Davies agrees on the value of internet relationships, when there is nothing else available:  “I can e-mail my husband who is on his laptop across the room, but we would both rather have a cuddle and conversation! But I am getting to know my new daughter-in-law, whom I have, as yet, to meet in person as they live nearly 7,000 miles away. But then I am biased – I met my husband through the internet.”

Technology means we can communicate quickly and cheaply with people all over the world. E-mail, in particular, allows us to leave messages to be answered when the person has time. It is less insistent, less intrusive, than phoning. It narrows the gaps between us, so we can create these vast webs of people that we are vaguely in touch with.

Inevitably, with so many friends and contacts – these relationships do not appear very deep. And when life is bouncing along happily, that doesn't matter. But how good are techno-relationships when life gets painful?

Clive says, “Facebook has also enabled people to express their support to me when I recently experienced three bereavements in the space of three months. I have really appreciated those kind thoughts.” He admits it might be the easy way out for some: “All they have to do is hit a few buttons and think to themselves, ‘That's him sorted,’ but nevertheless, it is better than being ignored.”

Jude's husband walked out on her and their two sons last year, and she has found techno-relating helpful to a certain extent. “I don't know that I would say it's made a massive difference. One of the nice things has been being able to construct honest exposition of my feelings via e-mail to someone who's asked ... and that in itself helps to have ‘put it into words’.

“E-mail can be conversational, but at a pace you can deal with only when you feel like it – you can have a kind of a conversation that you engage with on your own terms. Same with Facebook – you can dip in, dip out according to how much conversation you can deal with today.  Facebook has been nice because people are generally lovely and use it to encourage you. It's great to log in to Facebook and find nice messages left for you.

“Another positive of Facebook has been the instant messaging popping up on the screen and it's resulted in a few ‘Shall I phone?’ questions and some very useful and timely conversations. friends.  I think internet conversations have broadened, enhanced and supplemented the excellent net of support I have received.”  

Not all of Jude’s experiences were positive: she said it was hard when “you realise that Facebook has just notified everyone on your friends list that you've changed your relationship status to ‘single’ ... that resulted in more enquiries than I could handle!” 

What about the other downsides of techno-relating? Some of us have probably sent off an e-mail in anger and then regretted it. We may have upset someone unintentionally because e-mail, and Facebook has no tone of voice, no emotion, no body language and no eye contact. So all the things we rely on in a face-to-face encounter to help us communicate are not there. And simple comments can be read in many different ways.

However, as one younger user, Sarah, commented, “People who are easily offended by messages and mistake your meaning might have done so anyway. Most will give you the benefit of the doubt. You do have to try to create the bits it leaves out.”

Is techno-relating harmful, in some cases? Certainly over-use of the internet can be linked to high levels of depression, according to a study carried out by psychologists at Leeds University. They say, “There is a small subset of the population who finds it hard to control how much time they spend online, to the point where it interferes with their daily activities”.

Their conclusions, which have come from a large scale study of internet use and depression levels of 1,319 people aged 16-51, showed 1.2% of those taking part could be classed as 'internet addicted' – higher than the incidence of gambling in the UK, which stands at 0.6%. However, Dr Catriona Morrison, who led the study, said, “We don't know what comes first – are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?”

It seems to me there are more positives than negatives, and Liz England has certainly put Facebook to good use. While having treatment for cancer, she lay on the sofa with her laptop – not able to get up and do anything else. “As I had just joined Facebook, I decided that as there were hardly any Christian applications I would create one, and I decided that verses and other encouraging text would be best alongside inspirational pictures.

“Once I had created my first 25 or so, I placed them on the application, sent it to my Christian friends to see what they thought, and they loved them. They passed them on and I would see the numbers grow each day. At one point there were 10,000 users every month, including from America, India and South Africa. Many people have commented on how the verse that someone has sent them has lifted their day or encouraged them with a truth about God.”

Women on the Net in the Middle East

One area of the world where the use of internet is particularly important is the Middle East. Rachel Edmonds of MEM (Middle East Media) comments: “Women are one of the hardest to reach segments of Middle Eastern society as they are often restricted to their own homes. MEM Mariam's Diary website provides incredible access to these women, to carefully communicate God's love to them and to furnish them with hope, as well as an online community.”

It also helps women to feel less isolated. One woman, Nabila, wrote to the website on the issue of domestic violence, “Your website touched my life, as it speaks of what I feel sometimes but don't know how to express. I did not know that there are other people who share the same feelings as me.”

Mona made similar comments. “I need someone to listen to me; I want someone to confess to, to tell them the secrets of my life. I was forced to marry the man who raped me. My family have rejected me because of the shame I brought them. I am neither a wife nor a human being.”

Rachel says, “Mariam's Diary website focuses on the interests, needs and struggles of women in the region. They are active on the website between midnight and nine in the morning, with around 2,400 visits per night, as this is when they are confident they will not be caught.

“The website has become a safe haven where they do not worry about exposure or censorship, and where they can find comfort and hope. In the Middle East, women hide behind veils all day, at night they shed them and use our website to share themselves and their deep concerns. And the website communicates God's unconditional love. Women revisit the site regularly, hungry for the love, grace and affirmation that only God can minister to them.”