Weak Ties, Closed Networks, & Conspiracy Theories

person in red and black plaid long sleeve shirt using black laptop computer

Journalist Amanda Mull laments the loss of seemingly insignificant relationships in her most recent article “The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship” published at The Atlantic. Mull describes the kind of daily acquaintances we once knew. The barista who remembers our usual order, to the guy at the gym who just always seems to be there at the same time. They’re not people we know well, but they’re familiar. And now, thanks to COVID, they’re nearly forgotten.

This has implications for the Christian witness. I often tell my students to frequent the same spots. That’s a good way to develop relationships where you might be able to encourage someone, and, in time, perhaps point them to Christ. That’s really difficult to do with COVID restricted business access.

There’s another side to the loss of our “coincidental friendships.” Instead of talking to people we bump into, we now can be far more selective in our encounters since we are increasingly restricted to platforms like social media or Zoom for our relational connections. The result can be a highly customized echo chamber. We only connect with those whose views most resemble our own. Instead of the guy at the gym, or the barista at the cafe, who may very well see the world differently than us, we get to curate and choose our “chance” encounters.

I agree with the article that such edited engagement makes fertile soil for conspiracy theories. We’re no longer forced to talk with people who might challenge our assumptions. It’s easier to mute someone on a laptop. In real life, we see faces, we read body language, we hear the inflection of a voice that might be conveying something very different than the words spoken. And we’re forced into a human interaction where empathy can bubble up and compassion might soften our disagreements.

I fear we are becoming more harsh in this time of isolation seen through squinted eyes on distanced masked faces. In these days, we’re going to need to be way more intentional to build bridges with people who are on the other side of a whole lot of issues. If not, we will become so entrenched on our little islands that we will write off the rest of the world. That would be a shame. And for followers of Jesus, that would represent disobedience to his final words to go into all the world with his message of hope. Lord, help us.