I'm starting up a coffee afternoon at Cafe Africa on Fridays 13th, 20th and 27th March 2009 1.30-3.30. Drop in for however long you like. The thinking behind it is that more people are working at home, or are between jobs, and when I was doing that I realised how dependent I was on my work colleagues for a social chat. I am trying to recreate the chat that took place around the coffee machine, and at the same time to see what might come out of it. Amersham is an amazing place. When I moved here it seemed as though everyone I met ran their own charity and if a few people with a bit of time on their hands get together then who knows what might happen.
This set me thinking about the whole issue of networks. I was perhaps unusual in that I worked for the same company for 27 years and knew some people there for most of that time. There were certainly people I had known longer than my wife, and probably one or two with whom I had spent more time! I recognised that the company was my equivalent of a village - I moved house while staying with them, and many of the people in the "village" had been there a long time. This is much less common these days and yet with the hours that people are often working then it will still not be unusual to spend more time with people at work than anywhere else. But what then happens when you move on, either voluntarily or not? The networks around the home are much weaker than they were, and more people are moving more often.
So, networks at home and at work are breaking down. Are they being replaced by the internet? And is this adequate? One thing that the internet is returning is the sense of being known. Depending on how candid you are then readers of your social networking site of choice, or twitterers will start to know more about you - although unlike villages of the past this is dependent on what you wish to disclose, so perhaps doesn't reintroduce the restraint that once existed.
I don't think that the internet is any replacement for personal contact - I think that the internet allows you to retain control of your image - in a way that real life doesn't. Just think of people who take on roles in online games. If we want to love and be loved then we have to be real - but of course we fear that if we are real then people won't love us! Online we can refuse to be real and will not then find love. Of course we can also choose to be real - but that option is perhaps only open to us if we already know that we are loved. In real life people can see all of us with much less mediation and still choose to love us. And of course if we can discover the God who loves us even though he knows us better than we know ourselves, and return that love, perhaps then we can reveal our true selves more in real life and on the internet.