10 Ways to Make Meaningful Connections in the Digital Age

attentive listening

Smartphones are supposedly ruining our lives and making us incapable of having real conversations. But phones, like other modern means of communication, are tools. We can surely misuse them, but we can also use them to create meaningful connection. Here are ten ways:

1) Practice “relationship life support” — but don’t be afraid to unfollow or unfriend

Writing “Happy birthday!” on a friend’s wall, liking someone’s pic on Instagram, or retweeting a friend’s witty remark are forms of relationship life support. While this communication is generally not deep, it can at least help to keep a relationship alive.

That being said, sometimes relationships shouldn’t be continued. I probably don’t need to see updates about my fifth grade acquaintance I will never meet again. Unfriending and unfollowing can allow me to have the mental bandwidth to invest in more meaningful relationships.

2) Hide behind a screen to get over your fears

The anonymity of the net creates trolls and Yik Yak abuse, but it can also be used for good. Recently, I have been using a site to connect with language tutors for one-on-one Skype sessions. Exactly because they are people I will never meet in person, I don’t care what I sound like. I end up getting great practice in the language and meeting cool people at the same time.

Maybe you have some nerdy passion that your in-person friends don’t share? The internet was meant for connecting people who share common interests.

3) Bring God into the equation

The number of God-connecting apps has exploded. Pray As You Go is a classic, as is Rezando Voy en español. By easily carrying the prayers and readings for the day with iBreviary, I’m more likely to pray with them.

When we prayerfully reflect on our day, we can see how our hearts were moving and where God was active when we were online, for it, too, is “real” life.

4) Use “composed communication” rather than one-click communication”

Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” notes that people who receive actual messages from friends, as opposed to just likes, become less lonely. It takes about four seconds longer to write a simple message saying you just remembered a hilarious memory with your friend, but it’s infinitely more meaningful than simply liking her post.

5) Have “semi-public conversations”

Semi-public conversations, in which you write on someone’s Facebook wall or reply to friend’s tweet, can be even better at connecting people than simply sending a private message. One researcher notes that semi-public communication with friends decreases loneliness. Not only does your friend get your message, but your friend feels extra cool that you want others to know that the two of you have a special connection.

6) Practice solidarity — but not slacktivism

Learn about a part of the world in need, or work for a cause you’re passionate about. Try to go deep rather than wide. Compassion fatigue is real, as is slacktivism. Focus on a place or issue that lights a fire in your belly. See how you can help. Connect with others who are passionate about the same thing.

7) Build each other up

The internet is the greatest facilitator of waging a campaign of praise ever created. Don’t just like someone’s status; tell her how proud of her you are — and do it publicly.

One summer, McDonald’s was selling ice cream cones for $0.49. I bought one every day of my eight-day retreat and spent just four bucks. It was awesome. I decided to write a lengthy message on the McDonald’s website thanking them for being awesome. The people at McDonald’s wrote back to thank me for my thanks and to say that this never happens. But why can’t it?

8) Unplug from time to time

Twice a year, Bill Gates goes on what he calls a “Think Week.” He secludes himself in a cabin, bars all outside visitors, reads for up to eighteen hours/day, and thinks.

Most people can’t forget about all relationships and responsibilities for a week, but we all have a human need for solitude. We’re not likely to ditch our smartphones entirely, but keeping them on “do not disturb” mode or unplugging from time to time can make a huge difference. If I’m a little late in texting back my friend, he’ll understand.

9) Use a phone… and know when to put it away

Most of us know it’s impolite to text while someone is trying to have a conversation with us in person — but many of us do it anyway. A recent New York Times article talks about how just the presence of phones can change our in-person communication:

When two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.

10) Use screen time to facilitate face time (and not just FaceTime)

Online communication can be great. Skype and FaceTime, in which you get to see facial expressions and hear the voice of loved ones, can be particularly meaningful. But nothing replaces a hug from a loved one, a shared bottle of wine, or a four-hour dinner with friends. Use these tools to set up a time to get together in person.

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For some ways NOT to make meaningful connection in the digital age, check out a previous post, The Seven Deadly Sins in the Digital Age.

The cover image by Mahat Tattva Dasa can be found here.

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