This is a Catholic article about treating online time & online relationships well ~ and its well worth the time to read & reflect on it. I have to say it agrees with my own findings over the years. I went fully online for the first time in the summer of 2000 (our BBS time doesn't really count, as it was too cranky to do more than turn in papers and play a few games). I arrived online after several years of relative solitude, freshly released from health worries for my family for a season, and with a full understanding that those I spoke to online were real human beings with real lives, problems, and feelings. This was strengthened by the intense closeness of the community I first joined, but the affectionate relationships I developed were the silver lining to what was becoming a pretty serious storm cloud. My husband eventually equated the situation to having a vacation in a demiletarized zone! I had gone to hang out and have fun with like-minded people, but it was a community under attack by ambitious, manipulative people, and several saw me as competition. (What can I say? My personality is rather good-sized too. :) Others came in believing they were under some religious obligation to attack anything that smelt of clean fun... yes, really.
A number of those I encountered had already had their sensibilities blunted by the limitations of online discourse. Now some of the most manipulative were already that way in real life ~ in other words, the medium had not made an appreciable difference in their message, but for many of the youngsters - oh, it made ALL the difference. They saw life through the eyes of public school and cartoon/avatar images in their imaginations. They couldn't "see" me. A friend actually made an online personality to try and open the eyes of the 'virtually blind.' I am not sure it worked for more than a few, but I always respected that valiant effort.
Being mean to people you can't see is all too easy for the childish and cowardly. Now understand that anyone can feel petty or childish on their worst days and add that to the incredible amount of misunderstandings available in rapidly TYPED messages (where one poor turn of phrase can start a feud) and its easy to see why so many online relationships sour if they have no offline, in person, physical reinforcement.
Don't think Christian-based communities are immune to this. All the Redeemed are on a different part of our journey with Jesus. Its also helpful to remember that there are a wide variety of churches out there, and many are very worldly in outlook. Its quite a downer to meet someone who believes they are irrevocably saved by their denomination's specific doctrine (which makes them 'more' saved than you ) and therefore 'fireproof' against God's requirements ...and subsequent corrections for disobedience. This is the type that usually doesn't think reading scripture & praying daily is all that important, and that, in any case, all that bad stuff that can happen is only judgment when it happens to someone else!
I will probably always remember the twit who claimed that the "loving your neighbor" didn't apply online because of the physical distances. I am REAL sure our 'neighbor,' in the Godly sense, is anyone we encounter in ANY MANNER (after all, none of the people who ignored the injured man in the Good Samaritan parable were said to be natural, next-door neighbors - and the Samaritan was a foreigner!) ...but be aware, there are self-professed 'Christians' who hold this other view. I can guarantee you that anyone who doesn't feel any obligation toward ethics or manners in online encounters is a problem for the entire community they join, not just you.
There are other pitfalls too. I understood that some of the folks that became strongly attached to the community were needing replacements for Real Life lacks. I love most people, and most people love to be loved, but the particularly needy can be hard to satisfy. It takes time to know that is what you are up against. Its hard to stop spending much time with these folks if you care, because they can get hurt so very easily, and because it feels so virtuous to be reaching out to those who seem to need your time and affection so very much, but it IS a trap...one that can swallow your life whole until you climb back out of it. I have already been down that road in real life, and spent much of my time with those I recognized as being in that category evangelizing (sometimes more than I was comfortable with) because I knew they need Jesus a lot more than they need me. They can hang on to Him for dear life here and hereafter and He'll never mind a bit, the Holy Spirit never has to shift His attention away (God is the ultimate multitasker), and will never disappoint their hunger for HUGE amounts of unconditional love. (His JUSTICE requires good behaviour out of us, but His LOVE never has been bounded and never will. He hates sin but not us. That's why there is so much mercy available to free us from our sins!) God is the only one who can do all they desire. God is the only one who can heal these deep aching needs and be with them everywhere, everywhen.
Others I met needed only a friend, but still needed Jesus to fix their self-loathing, cowardice, depression, and other ills. I tried not to push my faith at them, but sooner or later I was bound to briefly mention (as an option) the Answer I believe in with all my heart, soul, and life, ~ and that's bad enough for some. Mentioning the Blessed Hope made me a better target ~ but then, doesn't it always? If you love those you encounter enough to truly try to help them, I guarantee you will be a target too.
I ended up spending so much time trying to counsel those I found and cared about that I began to lose ground in my home. I had to back off in order to keep my family first, and I did, but I don't think it was ever really accepted that I was truly too busy to continue putting in hour after hour, visiting and comforting, day after day.
Backing off made it easier for the hostile-minded to turn more kiddos from me and what comfort I still had time to offer, since I wasn't doing so much for them anymore. I kept getting words from everyone who knew me that my time of intense involvement wouldn't last, and was essentially allowed by God as a learning experience - even when I was enjoying my time there the most. That helped, but I can't honestly say I have wanted to repeat those times so I have wondered what the lesson was preparation for, if you know what I mean.
...and all this was WITHOUT Orcut...Facebook...Myspace...Yahoo 360....Twitter... or even Blogger, whose restraint in formatting I appreciate ever more as time goes on. I don't mind sharing little essays when I have something to say, but I really don't want a page that recreates that sense of demand on my time I felt back in my early internet days.
I mention all this for those who read this and may be debating proper limits in an involving community setting. These community pages (Facebook, Orcut, and the like) are meant to organize and make easier to manage what I had going ~ sharing photos, chats, private messages etc ~ all on one page. That also means its MUCH easier for a Newbie to get sucked in to that whole online-centric lifestyle just by adding a few interest groups. Its easy to get overwhelmed by responses when you are recognized by a highly interactive group as a productive/valued member.
So what is the bottomline? I recommend caution now in making online friendships (and it saddens me to say that.) Those that you are sure you'd like to know better - well, pray a lot first, and give it a little time. Let the initial charm wear off a little bit. Keep in mind that online friendships need to be reinforced in real world terms to have any hope of being lasting. Use what options are available to you - visits, cards, phone calls, teamspeak, personal meetings... This helps determine who was being real with you online, though you will still have to be wary of the seasoned manipulators. I also recommend deliberately limiting how many hours you consider 'available' - using a timer or planned 'openings' in your personal schedule - and with your family understanding that they come first in any conflict of interest. I am in a lot of places these days, but am much harder to 'catch' ~ and that seems to be the right answer for me and mine right now.