Despite the uptake of the internet and the growing number of social networking sites, suggesting that people of all ages love to connect online, we still hear people talking about it not being the same as face to face contact. There are a lot of assumptions that face to face contact is preferable. These arguments typically come back to us valuing the relationship more by being together in a physical space and that we will get more out of face to face contact than we ever could through virtual contact using technology.
As an avid online user I can see the benefits that virtual contact brings, that take us way above more traditional face to face contact. Here are just a few examples: I am currently undertaking an online Masters degree from an interstate university. This university is the only one that runs this specialty course, so without it I wouldn't be able to study this area, an area that is important to me. Through this course I have been able to participate in forums and teleconferences with lecturers and other students, meeting a range of people from around Australia with an interest the same as mine - and of course after three years I'll have a qualification.
Another example is a photography course Iím participating in which has both face to face and online components. We meet up face to face and learn about photography with the support of a tutor.
This takes two hours a fortnight and some regulars turn up but thereís usually someone new as well each session. We are friendly during that session but typically focus our attention on our photography, taking some new risks because we are there as a group and have a tutor to push us and support us. Thatís a benefit of face to face contact for learning a practical skill like photography. But the group also has an online presence, through a webpage and Facebook page where we all post our photos.
This, to me, is where the sense of community, the sense of belonging to the group, really comes from. We ďlikeĒ each otherís photos, comment here and there, and over time feel like we are getting to know each other through this online presence. This sense of community, built on line, flows across to our face to face meetings, enhancing our relationships.
And the last example for the moment is an online writing group I've just joined. This is a course facilitated by a woman in the United States. The group includes a range of people from different backgrounds and different countries, each participating because they want to experience writing. The information and writing tasks are sent by email but there is also a Facebook page which enables sharing of our writing, asking questions, commenting on our experiences and, perhaps most importantly, providing support and encouragement to each other. Some participants have said they have never felt like they belong anywhere like this before, some are bravely presenting their writing for the first time ever to anyone and feel that this space is a safe place to do that.
As humans, we continue to find ways to connect with each other. Increasingly, in our busy world, we can use technology to assist us, to build our connections and to strengthen those that we have. Of course we will want to have face to face contact with people, and there will be times when that is necessary, but letís harness the use of technology to expand our sense of belonging and connection whenever we can.