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Does technology make us lonely? Anybody? Hello..?

InternetFull disclosure: I am one of the 300,000 or so members of the PC Advisor forum (we're bigger than Slough), so I'm an unlikely opponent of online social networks. Even so, I know this: in suggesting that social-networking websites undermine communities, Archbishop Vincent Nichols is talking out of his cassock.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales opined in the Sunday Telegraph this weekend that MySpace and Facebook lead young people to seek 'transient' friendships. He suggested that electronic communication makes 'quantity' more important than 'quality' in friendships. He even suggested that the relative weakness of such relationships was a factor in teenage suicides.

Is he right? (It's possible: although unlike his boss he isn't infallible.) Are we so reliant on email, SMS and web communities that we struggle to form and maintain actual friendships?

Clearly there is a modicum of truth in the Archbishop's claim that social-networks commoditise relationships. I'll accept any Facebook friend that I can even vaguely recollect from school, and you have to be called @spammer for me to block you from following my Twitter feed. I'm not going to lie: to a certain extent it's a numbers game.

But I do also have, you know, friends. And family. And a wife. And I retain the ability to connect with them despite spending my working life staring at a computer screen.

And then there are the outer circle. If a casual friend from university gets married, I'll see the photos on Facebook. Five years ago I wouldn't have even known to send them a congratulatory message. It's not deep friendship, but it is nice. And harmless.

If I happen to be in the home town I last lived in more than 10 years ago, there's a much greater chance of me hooking up with an old face by putting up the bat signal via Twitter or Facebook than ever there was via phone call or letter. (Is this a bloke thing?)

My mum and dad see a lot more of their granddaughter because they have Skype and a webcam, and finding a trusted business contact is a lot easier via the implicit referral of a LinkedIn connection.

The point is that the Archbishop is right, but only half right. Electronic communication can never replace face to face contact. Nor should it. What it does is offer extra possibilities over and above the friendships you maintain with the people physically closest to you.

And occasionally, just occasionally, it offers something more. We have had at least one marriage with its roots in the PC Advisor forum. We've witnessed many more occasions where members have been down, alone and at the end of their tether, and have found plenty of people willing to rally round.

Relying solely on electronic communication for community would be plain wrong. But friendship is friendship, regardless of the medium.

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