June 25, 2007

Outsourcing Friendship

I suppose I should have expected that I'd be posting again here. Whatever issues lead to the brief closing of these pages have been resolved, and even the Action Alert to rescue Target Theory was successful. But alas, I have found myself without much inspiration to write, no topic that kindled an urge to share any thoughts. Even though I said I would continue, I haven't written anything significant in over a month. Of course, the solution to this is to simply write about not being able to write.

It is no surprise that blogging is so popular; the sense of community that comes with it is quite astounding. The Internet is vast, and typically anyone can find a place they fit in somewhere, somehow, no matter how absurd their interests. People will naturally find others who share their views and opinions; it is only the natural next step that they share their feelings and concerns. Eventually, some share their secrets. Formerly strangers, they are now a family of sorts, their lives are inextricably connected.

Whether we like it or not, on-line communities have become an important part of our society. I work closely with people I have never met, but they are no less a part of my team than those I see every day. My professional community consists mostly of people I rarely meet, if ever. But the location independence of these relationships are what make them so effective; I rarely spend more than four days in a row in the same city, and any relationship that required physical presence would fail. My work would suffer as a result. Because distance is not an impediment to these relationships, we remain functional and productive.

From a professional standpoint, I can accept this. In order to compete in an increasingly globalized society, one must leverage all the human potential one has access to, wherever that potential may reside. If someone in India can help me do my job better, then by all means I will enlist his help. The technology exists to allow this person to help me in almost any way. The unfortunate consequence of this is that the person down the street looking for a job may be overlooked in favour of the eager, cheaper supply of skills overseas. Much has been written on this topic already, and I don't want to repeat what has already been discussed to death.

When this sort of relationship penetrates our personal lives, things become a little more complicated. As part of our fitra, our state of nature, we rely on the physical closeness of people to remain socially healthy. As children, it begins with our family, our parents in particular. That physical closeness, that most fundamental social structure dictates the people we become as we grow up. It plays into our early childhood, as we navigate through the hierarchy of primary school. There is always the socially awkward group, there are always the bullies, there are those in between. Children will undoubtedly jump from one group to another; one can't be typecast as a bully forever, for example, based solely on their behaviour in the first grade. But it is because of healthy social interactions that one will move away from dirty playground politics, towards a friendlier future.

While psychologists will never stop debating the roles of nature and nurture in human development, it is clear that one's upbringing has a significant impact on their behaviour as adults. An unhealthy upbringing is often the warning sign of an unbalanced individual, and analysts will often look at the social interactions of a suspect to identify their motivations when a crime is committed.

So when those social interactions move entirely out of the physical realm and into cyberspace, will this have the same impact on developing a person as traditional social interaction? In the same way that local talent is often overlooked in favour of resources abroad, we will often overlook our local communities for friendship in favour of on-line, "outsourced friendship". We are only at the beginning stages of this right now; on-line social networking is still in it's infancy. Most of us still remember a time before the Internet, even though we may not look upon it with fondness. But in this part of the world, anyway, we are the last generation like this; I can still remember what life was like before Wikipedia, when even simple high school research required time and effort. I can still remember when communication with my cousins was limited to the rare occasions of expensive long distance phone calls and six-hour road trips. Future generations will not know such a world; anything less than instant access won't be enough. I do prefer things as they are today, but at least I recall when things weren't so simple, so that I can better appreciate how far we have come.

On-line forums were all the rage at a point, and I had become quite active in one several years ago. What I discovered there was the ability to be someone else, perhaps someone better. In that particular forum, being "better" was debatable; my on-line persona was a thugged out cereal mascot, part of a gangster legion played out by my friends. But however we represented ourselves, random people came to like us, admire us, and even trust us with their deepest feelings.

One young member of that forum happened to be contemplating suicide at the time, and e-mailed me privately for help. While the suicide thoughts were the product of simple teenage angst and disaffected emo culture, unlikely to materialize into anything substantial, he took whatever advice I provided to heart. Eventually, the troubled child changed his mind. For months, this member thanked me for saving his life, even though my contribution was negligible at best. I don't believe to this day that I wrote anything special or beyond what any decent individual might say, but the value of an on-line friendship became apparent to me then. I never thought much about it, but in this child's troubled youth, my thugged out cereal mascot became something of a saviour.

I kept thinking about why there was no one real to have offered that same advice. All I told him was that there was still so much to be thankful for, in spite of what he perceived to be significant personal problems. That little amount of kindness and optimism was apparently the only kindness he had been shown in years. I would have considered his case to be an exceptional one, except that over the years, numerous other on-line acquaintances from that forum have thanked me similarly for renewing their faith in humanity. That particular forum eventually closed, but I still occasionally get e-mails from it's members thanking me for the positive influence I left on them.

Has the world become so cruel that we require outsourced friendships? Do on-line relationships lessen the value of personal contact in any way? These concerns have plagued me for some time now.

I pose these questions, ironically, out to the Internet, where approximately 95% of my readers appear to be from cities and countries that I have no actual contact with. Your thoughts on the topic would be much appreciated.


  1. Assalaamu'alaykum wa rahmatu Allahi wa barakaatu

    In some way, I think the world has always been pretty cruel but there were no other ways of dealing with it. Unfortunately, where people fail in their responsibilities and fail in developing wholesome characters, others are wronged, and the others require "outsourced friendships." This is especially true in the West where individualism is the regarded as the norm (until you break, in which case it's time to seek help such as help lines, which ppl also utilize in their loneliness, another sad phenomenon in our society) and collectivism is the way of the ancients.

    But just because some people find themselves in a lonely world where in desperate situations they turn to strangers, it doesn't mean that friendships developed online have to be stigmatized.

    As always, there's good and bad in everything. The Internet is another means by which we can engage in interactions, and they do fulfill some human need of interaction (I'll spare you the reasons).

    In the last month I have come to "trust" (I use this term very loosely now) people who I had never met a month earlier. Complete strangers in fact.

    Whether we meet/befriend ppl online or off, I think what counts is that there is sincerity and trust (trust assumes respect) in that relationship. And that, my friend, is another story all together.

    We get apprehensive of people online sometimes because we have no way of physically trying to assess their level of sincerity (i.e. through actions, expressions), and some people great liars. I've learnt, great liars exist in the 'real' world too.

    So I figure, it's best not to think too hard about it.

    As for how sometimes words of strangers online can help people... I've put some thought into this before and for myself I found that where I held no weight to my own words (cuz I was just saying it as it is), others benefitted from it, and it was by no means because of my words, but because Allah used those words to help that person. Such is the same when sometimes a random person online will say something that they consider to be simplistic, but I will perceive it as a great insight and profound in the context of my thoughts at the time. I then come to appreciate the source through which this inspiration has come, but ultimately, I thank Allah because peace comes from Him and in many different packages.

  2. Farzeen: Wa'alaykum assalam wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh,

    I suppose my apprehension lies in the potential insincerity. Of course, most people really are decent people who aren't out to lie to you or cause you harm, but there are a few. But as you said, that's no different than the offline world, so I suppose there's no reason to single out on-line friendships as potentially insincere or dangerous.

    I suppose it's the fact that it's so impersonal which worries me. I recently somehow got involved in a jilted breakup between two individuals who were supposed to marry one another until something went wrong between them. The male in this story has the same full name as me, and somehow they started including my gmail address in their discussion. While most of the exchanges were in transliterated Urdu, difficult to decipher for a whitewash like myself, it was still a very personal, intimate affair that I had been privy to unintentionally. That sort of thing could never happen off-line. At first I found it quite amusing until the exchange became more heated and more private, so I had to inform them to exclude me from their discussions.

    Ultimately, everything has it's benefits and harms; as you said, it's really Allah who puts the benefit in these things, and He can package that benefit however He wishes. If I'm used as a means for good in someone's life, then I should be grateful that I have been such a means, alhamdulillah. May Allah protect us from that which is harmful and increase us in that which is beneficial.

  3. I remember that website... good times.

  4. "Has the world become so cruel that we require outsourced friendships?" - yes, but then i think it always has been - the internet's just giving human beings another way to do what's natural to them - communicate.

    "Do on-line relationships lessen the value of personal contact in any way?" - No, it can't...well at least not in my view.

  5. Assalaamu'alaykum

    Interesting things that pop into your inbox. That was just about the time to get some snacks before reading .. tsk tsk..lol. Anyway, you don't have to watch too many Hindi movies to know thatthe sky is the limit for the drama out there in relationships.

    I missed that question, about online relationships lessening the value of personal contact. Not that you necessarily want to hear my take on it, but here it is anyway.

    Online relationships don't inherently lessen relationships in the real world, but it depends how we perceive them. I think your apprehensions with online relationships are valid in that there is a big element of illusion that can potentially arise. It could not be intentional, but as you've said in the past about how people might perceive you from your blog.. they can fill in the blanks with either positive or negative, neither of which could make up an accurate picture of who you are. It's easier to get an accurate picture of things in the flesh, but alas both are suspectible to lies depending on who we're dealing with.

    Point being, if we value online relationships in the way that isn't realistic and that hinders offline relationships, then we're in trouble. The only way that online relationships can somewhat lessen offline relationships is that the security of not having to look someone in the eyes and speak allows a little bit of room to open up more. And often, relationships in the offline world suffer because communication isn't there. Perhaps sometimes people who fail to communicate with their loved ones face-to-face, need to take to the written word, as we do in the online world.

    Ah, but I just fell into a hole, because the online world for me is writing and for others, it goes beyond that impersonal worry that you expressed and it gets into phone calls, voice chat, picture swapping, etc. As personal as impersonal can get.

    With all that rambling brother, I leave you with some lyrics, by Brother Dawud W. Ali.

    "I sent an e-mail to my loved one just the other day, it's sad communication has evolved this way. We use so many words but have so little to relay as angels scribble down every letter that we say. All the viral attachments sent, the passion, insults we vent, it's easy to be arrogant behind user passwords we invent. But on the day the scrolls are laid with every word and deed displayed, when we read our account I know for one I'll be afraid. That day I'll be so afraid to read. Every harsh word that I've spoken, every time that I have lied. I'll be obliged to admit, I'll be obliged to submit, but will I be strong enough owning up to each deed I've tried to hide. Oh Allah, I'm so afraid to read."

    Ameen to your du'a.

  6. Assalamu'alaikum

    (I didn't read what Farz says...geez it's long..perhaps she's got the same opinion?)

    Anywho, I don't think it's a matter of outsourcing friendship. I think the beauty of online relationships is there a lots of way to break the barriers the 'outside world' (society) holds on us. For example I'm not likely to just come up to you and be like "heyy bro yada yadaa". Where as online it's a pretty safe means of doing it...without feeling awkward. And though one can get emotionally attached online, often it's accepted as "not real". As though online is a fictional world. As you said it's still in its infancy so it can easily be brushed off as a 'nothingness'.

    Who knows! Just adding my paanch rupees.