When the organizers of a recent panel discussion about Catholic twentysomethings and pop culture asked me to participate as a representative twentysomething, I had to remind them that I’m thirty-five. Close enough, they said: they could tolerate the approximation if I could.

I’m not sure they were right to be so tolerant. As it happens, I have a brother who’s twenty-five. I think it fair to say that he does less texting and Facebooking than most people his age, as I do less than most people mine. But he still does far more than I do, and seems to have a very different sense of how texting relates to other kinds of communication, and how social media relate to other media and other ways of socializing. The difference is not ideological or temperamental; it is, strictly speaking, generational—not so much a difference of opinion as one of habit and expectation.

People my age are young enough to have spent our whole adult lives with the Internet, which means that it’s become natural to us. But it’s second nature, not first, because we’re also old enough to remember, and to have used, typewriters and rotary telephones—and even to have written and received handwritten letters without any sense that we were engaging in a countercultural or antiquarian activity. Thirtysomethings belong to a bridge decade between the world of Facebook and the world before it. We can get away with leaning back toward the habits of our elders, to newspaper subscriptions and phones-used-only-as-phones, but we can also lean forward toward the habits of people my brother’s age. Either way, our position is a little awkward, but it may be a good position from which to compare these two worlds.

When a society makes the collective decision to adopt a new technology, it usually knows what it’s gaining before it figures out what it’s losing. The advantages are obvious and irresistible; we only discover the disadvantages in retrospect—with nostalgia and sometimes with regret, but always with resignation. Collective decisions like this are hard, if not impossible, to unmake. So questions like, “Overall, would we have been better off without the Internet?” are purely speculative. The Internet is here to stay, like it or not. Some future calamity might take it away from us, but we’re not about to give it up because of reservations about what it’s doing to our minds and our communities.

So where does that leave us? It’s become a truism that socializing online is not a substitute for socializing in person, that Facebook friendship is not the same as real friendship. Therefore, we say, one needs to strike a balance. But if such a balance is to be had at all, it will inevitably involve some degree of renunciation. Time, including a lifetime, is a zero-sum affair. The time you spend updating your status or poking someone on Facebook is time you might have spent having a real conversation with a friend, or in solitude, which is a conversation with oneself. It’s also time one might have spent quietly enjoying someone’s company without any transmission of information. Such things often take a while, and they can’t always be scheduled. If we force them to the margins of our screen lives, they may suffer, and even begin to disappear.

This problem presents itself to young Catholics the way it presents itself to young people in general, and I doubt there’s any specifically Catholic solution. But I do think a Catholic understanding of what Christian faith consists of might help Catholics at least to correct one tendency of our digital age. In a sacramental religion, faith is not just about attitudes or conceptual beliefs; it’s about practices. We ask if someone practices his or her faith, if he or she is a practicing Catholic, because we understand faith the way we understand love and hope: as an activity rather than a status. Social media tempt us to think of friendship primarily as an attitude of mutual approval. This person finds me nice; I find him or her nice; we find the same things nice. So I’m on his or her list of friends, and he or she is on mine. In fact, such affinities are not the same as friendship, though they make friendship possible. Catholics should be the last to forget that friendship is actually constituted and sustained by practice, including the time-consuming practice of conversation, but also including every kind of care. You say you’re someone’s friend because you know her well—but how do you treat her? That is, are you a practicing friend?

Related: Changing Our Minds, by Christine Neulieb
Robin Antepara's review of Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn

Published in the 2011-03-11 issue: 

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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