Last week, I mentioned that I was re-assessing how I manage “friends” on Facebook. Unfortunately, that required “unfriending” a lot of people that did not fit into the new guidelines. The reason for making the changes I did was not directly for the sake of having less “friends” or relationships, it was for the purpose of having better, quality ones. How we do this personally, however, while balancing our efforts to reach out to others and meet new people can be socially challenging.
A commenter on the post had a great question:
I am wondering how you will be able to filter out new people who you are reaching out to through your faith and media? I understand a core group of close, personal relationships, but I am timid about turning people down who may be reaching out to me because of my faith. My goal is to lead others to Him through Him. I would love some words of wisdom, or a blogpost on this.
Well here are some thoughts addressing my approach to this. Maybe it will help you and others. And I think these apply to everyone and how we manage our friendships online (and otherwise), not only if you have a blog or are specifically using new media to evangelize or reach out to others.
It’s all about intimacy. A good gauge for the depth of a relationship is its intimacy. How well do you truly know each other? And how deep does that knowledge go?
There are endless tools to build relationships and maintain friendships online. Websites, forums, groups, comment sections, social networks, twitter, email, etc. are all such tools. And each, depending on how we use it, offers opportunities to express various levels of intimacy with others.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because something is digital that it is not “real.” As people of faith, we surely know that just because we can’t hold or touch something does not make it any less “real.” And it can certainly still be extremely intimate.
Obviously, communicating digitally does put some (but not all) limits on some types of intimacy. But most kinds of intimacy are not only possible, but often shared more easily and quickly using digital media. This can be both dangerous and powerful. It can be used for both great evils and tremendous goods. And it is up to us to establish effective guidelines and barriers for ourselves to make sure we are using it all in a healthy way.
Therefore, I think it’s important to have clear boundaries to your levels of intimacy online. If you don’t have clear, conscious and deliberate boundaries then they will become more and more blurry over time and eventually non-existent.
Facebook is a good example of this. We add people as “friends” who we haven’t seen for 20 years. Or who we took one class with 3 years ago. Or who we hung out with on one occasion and never talked to again. Or of somebody we met in a forum online. Many times we add people who simply request to be our “friend,” even though we have no idea who they are. And then we proceed to share many of the most intimate details of our lives with them.
When we share the most intimate details of our lives with absolutely anyone and everyone, then those things end up not being quite so intimate anymore. Whether trivial or serious in nature, they just aren’t quite as special. And most importantly, guarding our intimacy is not just some matter of deciding who we allow in to our exclusive circles. It is supposed to work both ways. You let somebody in. They let you in. You show trust. And you receive trust. You become vulnerable to each other. It’s not to be taken lightly.
And, of course, we only have the capacity to enter into so many intimate relationships. This means, in a world with endless opportunities to say yes, you simply must say no sometimes. We have to do it with endless volunteer opportunities and with every sacrifice we make in every minute of our busy days to instead accomplish what is most important. We have to do it with our friendships, too.
So, to finally answer the original question.
First, pray. You simply must be in tune with God and his plan for your life in all that you do.
Second, establish boundaries. Just because somebody reaches out to you or wants to be your “friend” doesn’t determine all by itself the way that person should fit into your life. You must have some say also. Facebook, for example, can be set up using privacy settings and “lists” to control what gets shared with which people. It can get cumbersome, though, depending on how much you try to do this. But there are other ways to have a relationship with somebody online. Pick a different tool. Connect with them on another social network. Use a separate email address or an online forum. Do whatever works for you. But have those boundaries and stick to them.
Finally, remember your priorities. Don’t let your most important relationships suffer because you are spending all of your time proving somebody wrong on the internet, or counseling an especially needy person you met on a blog, or tracking trivialities about “friends” you barely know. Just because something is good in itself doesn’t mean you don’t have something more important (and just as good) to be doing - like building an extraordinary marriage, loving your kids or fueling your closest friendships. Make sure you take care of those first.