F2F vs. Digital Communication: It’s ALL Mediated

This is in response to Kimberly’s post on Technology, The Great Commission and Authentic Christian Community.

Kimberly notes the often used criticism of churches in virtual worlds that because they are “mediated” forms of communication, they are somehow inherently inferior to face to face communication.

A friend of mine reminded me just today that even “face to face” experiences are mediated forms of communication. They are mediated by our language, for one thing, which is a very early type of technology, but technology nonetheless.

F2F encounters are also mediated, by things like our individual quality of vision (or lack thereof), hearing, speech and other senses. Every individual has a different “mix” and range of these abilities that affects (read “mediates”) their experiences — and even when this mediation is face to face, biological and linguistic (and cultural) limitations can still detract from the experience.

But this same mediation has the ability to enhance our experiences as well. Language does this–we often acknowledge some among us to be more *effective* speakers, writers, or conversationalists than others. Someone with keen hearing, astute vision, or sense of smell might benefit from this enhancement during communication.

Here’s a question I often hear when I start talking about online churches

Given the choice, why would anyone choose online communication/relationship/meetings, etc. over face to face?

The question assumes that we are comparing apples to apples, and that one form of communication is superior in every conceivable way to the other form.  But if your parents live in a different state, your choice is not really “Should I communicate with them via telephone?” vs. “Should I communicate with them face to face?” The latter is not an option, given the distance.  The real choice is “Should I communicate with my parents via telephone?” vs. “Should I only communicate with them when I can see them face to face?” which is likely on an infrequent basis, compared to what the telephone allows.  In this light, which option (cyber communication vs. face to face) is better for the relationship?  A relationship mediated by telephone, or no relationship at all, so to speak of?

What this illustrates is the strengths and weaknesses of each form of mediation.  Yes, there are visual body-language and tactile cues that online/virtual world communication can not emulate adequately enough for some. Not yet, anyhow. But it is doubtful face to face communication will ever be able to overcome its greatest weakness:  Your voice, sight, and range of hearing only extend about 20 feet  in any direction.  You can’t have a persistent relationship with someone outside of this range without the mediation of some sort of technology (car, letter, telephone, facebook, virtual world).  With the advent of the industrial age, our society has already committed itself to familial dispersion, global travel and frequent relocation.  In this light, we seek out and employ various technologies as “enhancements” that allow us to overcome our geographical separation and isolation.

Both F2F and Online communication have, as demonstrated above, their inherent weaknesses and strengths, and some people will continue to be more comfortable with one set of mediated experiences than another.  But let’s just recognize right now that all communication is mediated, and all communication is limited in some way.  Overcoming these limitations is what creative and compassionate humans do — whether with a hug, a phone call, a well-timed email…or maybe even a deep conversation whilst on a walk through a virtual park in a virtual world with a real friend.



  1. MB

    Very well put! You’ve articulated something that I’ve been struggling toward for a while now. I have some relationships that have much more depth in the virtual world because each of us chooses to think before hitting ‘enter’ and then each of us can question the other’s meaning without seeming hurtful – in the virtual world we come to expect a need for clarification that we tend to ignore in f2f conversations.

  2. Kimberly Knight


    I appreciate you further unpacking the issue of mediated transactions as well as the clear way of drawing techonolgy use parallels. phones or not using phones is not a question of whether or not we use the technology but how we make our use meaningful to connect with loved ones.

    I am so glad you are bloggin’ here friend!

  3. Josh

    mate excellent stuff, doing an assignment at the moment and the given topic was relationship, with choosing anything to do with relationships. thi article has given me an excellent understanding on the cyber and face to face relationship. Thanks,whens the book coming out haha :p

  4. Kimberly Knight

    Find me a publisher or agent and the book is ready!

  5. Neal,
    Thanks for your insight and clear articulation about mediated transactions. The face to face issue with regard to cyber relationships has been an issue for me.

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