Nuthin’ Like The Real Thing

Like millions of Americans, Elisa DeCarlo checked her e-mail everyday. As a problem drinker, she participated in an online support group for problem drinkers like herself. But one day DeCarlo found a message that shocked her—and helped her understand the limitations of such "virtual communities." The message was from a man known to her only as "Larry." Like other members of the e-mail support group, Larry had shared details from his life: his divorce, the custody battle over his 5-year-old daughter, Amanda—and of Amanda's tragic death in a fire. But on March 23, 1998, Larry sent the group a shocking message. He confessed that he'd actually murdered his daughter, bragging that he'd gotten away with it by feigning "shock, surprise, and grief." DeCarlo was horrified by what she read. But almost as shocking was the reaction of other members of the group. Some insisted that the confession must be a guilt-induced fantasy—even though Larry denied making it up. Even worse, other members insisted on absolving Larry of any guilt. After all, they pointed out, his crime had been committed years in the past. And besides, they said, it wasn't their place to judge. In the end, DeCarlo and two others tipped off the police—to the outrage of their e-mail companions. They sent the tipsters vicious e-mails vilifying them for breaking faith with their fellow group members. DeCarlo denies that she broke faith. Instead, she says she lost faith in the authenticity of virtual communities. She says the incident taught her that the sense of community she felt online was "for the most part, illusory." Online, she adds, a person is "just words on a screen." Today DeCarlo attends real-life meetings for problem drinkers. Those who celebrate "virtual communities" created online forget that it takes more than shared interests to create a real community. It requires the kind of proximity and everyday contact that enables your neighbors' concerns to become your own. Real life friendships require transparency and openness in our dealings with one another. Real life friendships deter wrongdoing, because it's much harder to hide our actions from real-life friends than on-line ones. True community is impossible when your "neighbors" are "just words on a screen," as DeCarlo put it. Clearly, the people in Froistad's on-line support group did not seem real to him. That's why—although he was careful to cover his tracks with his real life neighbors—he apparently felt free to let his guard down with those on- line friends. And seemingly, his on-line buddies experienced this same loss of realism: Most of them couldn't believe what Froistad was telling them—and if they did, they felt no responsibility for it. Froistad was arrested and eventually convicted of murder. But his story—and his e-mail buddies' reaction to it—is a reminder of why the Bible urges us not to forsake gathering together. Only in close communion with one another, where we can truly know and care for one another, and hold each other accountable, can true community exist. Because, as the old song goes, "there ain't nothing like the real thing," whether we're talking about love or community.


Chuck Colson


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