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Christian Charity in Cyber Communities

Interview With Sociologist G. Alexander Ross

WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 13, 2006 (Zenit) - Internet friendships, despite their inherent limitations, can be a real way to foster deeper personal relationships, says a Catholic sociologist.

G. Alexander Ross, who is a professor and dean of students at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, in Arlington, Virginia, shared his views with us on the possibilities and dangers of using cyber communities to build relationships with others.

Ross' areas of interest include the sociology of the family and the integration of the social sciences with a Catholic understanding of the human person.

Q: What are some reasons for the growing attraction of young people to online cyber communities?

Ross: At a most basic level, the attraction you ask about is merely one instance of our natural desire to associate with others.

Aristotle called man a "political animal." What he meant by this was not that we all have a desire to run for office, but that each of us is drawn to form groups and associations with others in order to realize himself.

That is, it is the very nature of man to associate with others. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 149, teaches, man "can only grow and realize his vocation in relation with others."

The young are often skilled at using Internet technology. They appear to view these cyber communities simply as other opportunities to pursue social relationships.

Q: Among the various means of communication, is there a significant difference in Internet relationships?

Ross: Of course, internet relationships are not identical to other forms of social interaction.

Something the Internet shares with earlier technologies such as the telegraph or the telephone is that the social cues transmitted to the other person are more limited than in face-to-face communication.

This limitation in the richness of communication has obvious disadvantages, yet research suggests some interesting compensations.

Social psychological research shows that physical attractiveness often has a more powerful influence on relationship formation than the deeper, more significant personal factors that we would prefer to influence friendship formation.

Although members of some of the cyber communities will share personal photos and other media as well as messages of text, the physical characteristics of the individual are not normally visible to the communicators. This can allow the deeper personal characteristics of the individual to be more salient in the interaction that occurs.

One interesting laboratory experiment found that subjects who met for the first time on the Internet liked each other more than those who first met each other face-to-face.

Furthermore, the lack of information on physical characteristics, by hiding racial differences, may make attitudes of racial prejudice less likely to impede relationship formation.

Not being tied to face-to-face interaction also opens many possibilities for reaching people who share particular interests. Esoteric interests are, by definition, shared by only a few. But because the Internet lets a person search the entire world to contact others who share unusual interests, he may find many with whom to correspond.

For example, some cyber communities are formed by people who share a rare medical condition. With that common bond, the members are able to offer empathy or advice that is not provided by their available face-to-face contacts.

Other special-interest cyber communities form around what sociologists call stigmatized identities. An important part of the self-identity of members of these groups is a trait or practice that sets them apart from conventional society. They seek each others' company for mutual support and defense, a natural and beneficial tendency found in some measure in most social groups.

It has been common in history that groups are stigmatized unjustly for a trait or practice that is in fact good. Often stigmatized and persecuted, Christians provide an example of this.

However, the characteristic that sets apart a stigmatized group is sometimes objectively harmful. In such cases, the cyber communities may serve to resist a change that would actually be to the benefit of the members.

Q: Is it possible to develop authentic friendships online, with people you may never see in "real life"? What would these relationships look like?

Ross: The limitations of the medium will certainly restrict the depth of the relationship that forms. But the specific social context is very important here.

As in the case of groups forming around rare medical conditions, the individuals may already share important human bonds that facilitate authentic friendship.

Also, research shows that many participants -- more than 50% in one study -- of these cyber communities will have transferred a relationship begun on the Internet to "real life." This finding suggests that while most such cyber relationships remain merely "virtual," the ones that the participants value most highly can be made "real."

It is important to remember that a very important purpose for participating in cyber communities is to supplement already existing contacts rather than form new ones.

A common criticism about the Internet has been that its use may weaken an individual's involvement in existing associations, such as the family or the neighborhood. The research does not support this claim.

Rather, we see that the Internet often facilitates communication between friends and family members, particularly in our age of high mobility. Cyber communities serve for many people the function of staying in touch with those from whom they might otherwise drift away. It is, in other words, one more way by which we can maintain that contact with other persons which is so important to human nature.

Q: What are the implications of a person's sense of community, when their greatest social network is online?

Ross: While we call these phenomena cyber or virtual "communities," they lack the spatial or geographic boundaries that have often been part of the sociological definition of community.

It is the absence of that physical character that leads us to label these social entities as "virtual" rather than "real" communities.

Nevertheless, many such "communities" do exhibit other conventional characteristics of communities such as a common identity and sustained patterns of interaction.

I suspect that the cases are rare in which a person's greatest social network is online.

In the same way that we tend to assume that Internet usage promotes loneliness and depression -- something that is not supported by the research -- we are also likely to overestimate the number of those whose primary social contact is on the Internet. Nevertheless, when it does occur it may indicate a problem. This area may be further addressed by my colleagues in clinical psychology.

Q: How could a person cultivate an attitude of authentic Christian charity, like that described by Benedict XVI in "Deus Caritas Est," through a cyber relationship?

Ross: One of the points that the Holy Father stresses in his first encyclical is the Church's concept of subsidiarity and its role in true Christian charity.

The concept of subsidiarity reminds us that associations of a higher order -- most particularly, the state -- must support rather than usurp the functions that are best carried out in the family, the local church community, and other lower order associations.

The flexibility, independence and decentralization of the Internet permit the formation of cyber communities as lower-order associations that can respond to the needs of their fellow men with "spontaneity" and "closeness."

There are many instances of groups which have used the Internet to mobilize others to respond with compassion to human and social problems.

Cyber communities formed around pro-life work, for example, have done marvelous work in bringing Christ's love and guidance to young mothers in need. This is not work done by the "bureaucratic state" but by individuals and groups with authentic concern for others.

At a simpler level, the mere act of communicating with another human being can often be a gesture of love.

One may not be able to comfort another with a touch of a hand or a smile over the Internet, but nor is that possible with a conventional letter. And we have no doubt that great love has been communicated through that ancient medium.

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