How does the internet affect our ability to be fully present? In his review of Changing the Subject, a book by Sven Birkerts, Jeff Nunokawa writes in The New Republic that

… It’s much harder to be “here and now”, here and now, what with all the bells and whistles, the bright lights and ring-tones of modern technology—“technology stains the moment with its disconcerting transmission of elsewhere.” “[T]he digital realm” doesn’t “foster”, even  “allow” “calm, linear, reflective thinking”. … We all know the state of distraction that Birkerts illuminates here, the listless march of the eye dictated by “our devices”, those screens that ceaselessly draw us away from the faces and pages right in front of us, and from the depths that those faces and pages contain; march us away from the more arduous adventures involving the long arcs of attentiveness required by the novels of Tolstoy and Joyce; call us away from what will come only if we allow ourselves to linger over a line without any thought of clicking on to the next link.

Nunokawa and Birkerts both are considering the importance of presence: of fully embedding oneself in a given moment, without allowing the mind to stray or wander to other things. If we consider our daily habits, many of us will find that the internet has affected our ability to do just this (though for many of us, it could be that awareness and focus have always been struggles). We’ve become so used to interruptions, eye-catching distractions, the ability to just click through to another thing when we grow bored. Cultivating awareness requires a level of intentionality and focus that seem hard to muster in our present circumstances.

But the detriments of distraction aren’t confined to the realm of intellectual thought and personal focus—whether you can focus on the article you’re reading, or whether you’ve gotten into unhealthy multitasking habits. Love itself, community and friendship, require focus: the ability to see the “other,” and be completely centered in our appreciation of them.

Later on in his review, Nunokawa suggests that the internet has given us greater connectivity and opportunity for “real” friendships. But I don’t think this is entirely true. Because deep and sustained friendship requires both intentionality and exclusivity: a limiting of our time, interests, and contacts in order to fully invest ourselves in the people who matter. If we are living with increasingly short attention spans, are we going to be able to truly be attentive when it matters most?

Additionally, social media (and the internet in general) is heavily “me”-centered. It’s through posting our own thoughts, feelings, pictures, and updates that we interact with the outside world. It’s not a place where we associate as equals, but rather where we associate with our friends as a plural crowd—a giant audience, to whom we direct our thoughts and passions. As Nunokawa puts it,

The friends that I am trying to reach … gather together and converge within a single someone else, a person addressed by a single pronoun—the second person plural. Thus grammatically (but not merely so) I am usually concentrating on just one person when I write, a pronominal Prince who represents the princely multitudes I just mentioned, as well as people I may know now or sometime in the future.

The internet is a field in which we can experience a sense of heightened importance and renown, depending on the popularity of our published thoughts and life updates. But when you write something on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, how often is it written to the second person singular—to a focused soul?

I would argue that one of the ways (and perhaps one of the most dangerous ways) the internet and social media encourage distractibility and short attention spans is the way in which they encourage us to look at the world as a large, abstract mass—rather than as a set of unique persons, places, or things. We get used to thinking in collective rhetoric, in stereotypical statements, in soundbite solutions. All of this runs counter to true charity and love, which require a focused and gracious gaze: one that sees flaws, but seeks to overlook evil and overwhelm instead with good. The sort of gaze and aim that ignores inflammatory rhetoric and “outrage porn,” and instead turns to the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Compare Nunokawa’s definition of online “friends” and audience with these words on love and friendship from Thérèse of Lisieux:

I have noticed (and this is very natural) that the most saintly Sisters are the most loved. We seek their company; we render them services without their asking; finally, these souls so capable of bearing the lack of respect and consideration of others see themselves surrounded with everyone’s affection…

This seems a fitting description of the online world, in which we are always seeking the attention of the most beautiful, popular, prestigious, or funny—in which we rate someone’s importance by their algorithmic, numerical success. (The Facebook friend who has 15 followers and gets 3 likes on their statuses is not as important as the person with 1,500 friends and 200 likes.) Thérèse continues,

On the other hand, imperfect souls are not sought out. No doubt we remain within the limits of religious politeness in their regard, but we generally avoid them, fearing lest we say something which isn’t too amiable. When I speak of imperfect souls, I don’t want to speak of spiritual imperfections since most holy souls will be perfect in heaven; but I want to speak of a lack of judgment, good manners, touchiness in certain characters; all these things which don’t make life agreeable. I know very well that these moral infirmities are chronic, that there is no hope of a cure, but I also know that my Mother would not cease to take care of me, to try to console me, if I remained sick all my life. This is the conclusion I draw from this: I must seek out in recreation, on free days, the company of Sisters who are the least agreeable to me in order to carry out with regard to these wounded souls the office of the Good Samaritan. A word, an amiable smile, often suffice to make a sad soul bloom…I want to be friendly with everybody (and especially with the least amiable Sisters) to give joy to Jesus.

Notice the difference here: between being friends with everybody, vs. being friendly with everybody. The former requires only the proper platform (the internet), along with enough wit and sparkle to draw accolades. The latter requires something entirely different: a quiet, gentle spirit, an openness to the ignored, a willingness to be humble, a gift for focus and mindfulness.

It’s true that we can be kind online: by dropping a note on a friend’s profile telling them how much they mean to us, by liking friends’ pictures, and/or putting affirmative comments on their status updates. But all of this is done publicly, and thus often prompts our egos to creep in and invade the kind sentiments we may be trying to express. 

In contrast, the sort of quiet and humble friendship that Thérèse advocates for is one shorn of public accolades, but full of quiet grandeur—and lasting meaningfulness. It’s one that will be harder to cultivate online, but that may have more permanent rewards.