The following article was written by my friend Stephanie Bennett. Dr. Bennett is the Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Florida. She’s also the author of Communicating Love and the new novel Within the Walls.
“Please give me your partial attention.” Can you imagine saying that to your spouse or a friend? Tongue in cheek, perhaps, but the truth is, do any of us expect anything less than the full attention of those with whom we are in relationship?
One of the most fundamental elements of a healthy relationship is that it requires adequate time, energy and focus to stay strong and be the force for good in our lives.
Today’s mobile media foster a multi-tasking lifestyle that easily leads to a mentality comfortable with fitting people into packed schedules that rarely leave enough room for meaning conversation or quality time together. In fact, we can become so busy multi-tasking that a simple date for coffee may have to be scheduled weeks in advance.
We may become adept at managing our hyper-organized lives, but none of it helps to nourish healthy, long-lasting relationships. This may be particularly so when it comes to finding fellowship on Facebook and other computer networks that allow for social exchange.
Let’s take a brief, but closer look at the prospect of finding fellowship online and consider some of the important factors embedded in this new mode of communication.
Without a doubt, Facebook, email discussion lists, and other new media have enlarged the circles of friendship for many. As well, our online networks are surely assets for those who are housebound, disabled, or living in remote locations.
From sharing praise music on YouTube and podcasts that stir the soul, to testimonies of deliverance, answered prayer, and encouraging messages that stream across the globe – these uses of media confirm the emergence of a whole new world of connection.
These tools extend our reach, allowing us to connect with people near and far. And, as these connections are carried to the streets, beaches, parks, airplanes, and workplaces, it certainly appears that opportunities for Christian fellowship are growing.
What fun it is to exchange inspiring messages and songs with Christian friends! But while our mobile media create a plethora of new opportunities that allow us to use language in many creative ways, they are also changing our perception and experience of the relationships we hold so dear.
For starters, relationships are not tasks on a to-do list, nor are they the sum of the information we exchange. What this type of communication behavior leads to is something researchers have been calling continuous partial attention, or CPA.
It is a way of being busy and interacting with one’s media environment rather than relating.
Over time, this misuse our media may be particularly problematic, for as we become more accustomed to giving partial attention to people, we lose the important focus necessary to truly connect and commune with them.
Instead of our texting or email communication being an exception to our normal mode of relating, it can quickly become a regular feature in our everyday lives, and giving partial attention becomes the “new normal.”
Along with multi-tasking our relationships, several other unexpected challenges arise. As dependence upon our personal mobile media for friendship and fellowship becomes entrenched in everyday experience, one main challenge is in dealing with something we might call a hyper-knowing of others.
This is that tendency to be much more open with those we don’t live with – sharing personal (and increasingly private) information about ourselves with those whom we have no primary responsibility or actual embodied experience. When this happens, people often feel they are closer to their distant online friends than they are to the people around them. The main problem here is that the online friendship is mostly illusional.
Even with those who attempt to “keep it real” by posting actual, untouched photos as their Facebook profile picture or share real-time status updates that convey sorrow, angst, or anger instead of unbroken positivity, the danger of deception and illusion press hard against our psyche, simply because we are “seeing” through layers of screens, platforms, and symbol systems.
As it is, we know that we already “see through a glass darkly;” adding one more layer between ourselves and another human being makes it that much more difficult to break through appearances to the heart of the person communicating.
Words are magnificent gifts given by God to help human beings make meaning, but words are not sufficient without action to back them up. Too easily, words alone mask our real needs and motivations.
The thing is – masks must be removed for intimacy to grow and it is life together that has the greatest potential to reveal who we really are and all that we can be. Fellowship is face-to-face settings has much greater worth to accomplish the work of the transformation of our souls.
But, as we transfer more and more of our human communication to mediated environments (such as Facebook) we inadvertently limit our ability to grow, both spiritually and in our relationships. Instead of depth of relationship we are more apt to gain relationships that are sparse, superficial, and unsatisfying.
It takes much personal bravery to remove the masks worn by our illusional self. Trust, loyalty, faithfulness — all are developed in an environment that is tangible, actual – a place where people are meeting face-to-face, sharing Christ through words and deeds. The Hebrew word that signifies speech is dabar. It is an interesting word, for it encompasses speech and action. One cannot use the word dabar without inferring both speaking and doing.
Relegating our fellowship to Facebook separates our doing from our speaking, thereby creating an environment that is extremely conducive to deception and even more so to illusion.
These are no substitutes for truth and reality. Our Father thought human presence significant enough to send Jesus the Christ in the flesh. He could have sent a message in a bottle, but chose the incarnation instead.
The Gospel is not a lifeless word in a book. It is alive and active, transformational because of the livingness of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
May we endeavor to do nothing less than hold human presence sacred, giving ourselves over to participation with each other in the fellowship of the Lamb – that which began in the Spirit, made visible in the flesh, an continues as the open door to experiencing life, glorious and eternal, today.
 Continuous Partial Attention (CPA), is a phrase coined by Linda Stone in 1997. It suggests communication behavior that is “always-on” scanning, scrolling, seeking to know and be known. It has become increasingly common to live this way in the Internet generation. See Business Week Report July 24, 2008.