Virtual is actual

Mark A. Hadley

At a recent writer's conference I was given the opportunity to comment on one audience member's view of the significance of the Internet. He'd just finished telling the audience that writing for readers online was all well and good but authors had to get out from behind their computers and make sure they kept talking to real people. I'll admit at first I didn't know how to respond. Before me was a microcosm of the church wondering aloud, as it were, why people didn't attend 'fellowship dinners' any more while missing the millions who were currently gathering in his study.

Those just coming to terms with the significance of the Internet in the commercial world should brace themselves. The past three years has seen the advent of what is now commonly known as Web 2.0. This nifty shorthand draws on the parlance of software updates but doesn't refer to any technological change in the web. Rather, it describes the development of a second generation of web sites and utilities whose focus is almost exclusively on the personal than the factual. This 'upgrade' is, in short, the transference of our social lives online.

Web 2.0 is not mere sci-fi musing; it is fact - so much so that as a web denizen I feel almost embarrassed describing it, like someone trying to break the news to the house-bound that there is a world outside their lounge room. Even the most determined Luddite must have noted the steady emergence of a series of strange new words. Blogs, wikis, forums, comments, podcasts and vodcasts are all tools web users have been developing to share parts of themselves online. The web is steadily becoming less about Googling for information and more about logging on to share. MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia, Flickr, WoW and Second Life have become the biggest names on the web today simply because they have proved best at capitalising on this desire to interact. They are the virtual meeting places for people forming communities online.

'Virtual' is the word that recalcitrant Christians have hidden behind for years, reasoning that so long as these communities do not form in the 'actual' world then they are somehow less significant to the people involved, and so not as worthy of evangelistic attention as, say, the block of flats that has been built down the road. Consider, though, how significant Web 2.0 relationships have become in the minds of their members. Take the social networking site Facebook for example. As of July this year, Facebook had over 31 million registered users with one in two logging on daily to interact with their virtual friends.  Half a million people are joining its virtual communities weekly - every week   - meaning that a population greater than South Korea's will be developing their relationships through Facebook by the end of the year.  A staggering one per cent of all time spent on the entire Internet is being spent on Facebook   - and this is only one of the methods being used to interact socially online. Three of the top five Internet sites visited by Australians are social networking sites.

Some may say, "These are just Internet numbers - they don't mean anything." OK, take some age-old advice and 'follow the money'. In September 2006 the owners of Facebook were considered more than a little odd for knocking back a billion dollar offer to sell out to web giant Yahoo!  The company is now valued at six to ten billion dollars with Microsoft bidding to buy a five to ten per cent stake in the company.  Social networking is the big fish in the online advertising world. Even as I wrote this article I received an email from a Melbourne-based hosting company titled 'What's a blog and how can it help your business?' The ad spend on social networking sites in the US alone is projected to reach two billion dollars a year by 2010.  Advertising companies no longer consider a web presence for a product as an add-on but a core expenditure for the promotion of any message.

The debate over whether online communities are of significance to the modern Christian is over - sorry if you missed it. Rather, the question is now what are we doing to develop meaningful relationships with the new countries springing up around us? The good news is that many of our youngest and brightest are already there. But the means for supporting them are sadly under-funded or non-existent. Where, for example, are the personal evangelism resources helping Christians make the most of these communities? Or the apologetic courses that examine effective online evangelism? Or again, the updated online components for existing, tried-and-tested resources and mission plans that could help them find new life in online communities? Pioneering sites like Christianity.net.au have made some inroads but so long as they are treated as forays into this new territory rather than bridgeheads, they will struggle for support.

Another objection to ministry online that could well be put to rest is the idea that the relationships that form online are fundamentally inferior to those that take place, say over a cup of coffee. Even if this were to be accepted, the fact remains that online relationships, alongside of off-line ones, have become a routine part of our culture. In a recent interview with Christianity Today, Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle-based Mars Hill Community church was questioned about the criticism he'd received for paying so much attention to interacting with the sometimes objectionable culture of his members. "Culture is the house that people live in," he replied. "And it just seems really mean to keep throwing rocks at somebody’s house."