Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Online Fraternities? WTF?

I hate to do it, but I’m going to be an old curmudgeon.  For the most part, I have embraced our brave new digital world.  I participate in social networking, tweet every once in a while, and blog (of course).  But, I’m growing cynical.  It seems we’re trying to do everything online now, and I’m ready to start fighting back.  We have online colleges, online high schools, online elementary schools, online classes, online book clubs, online game clubs, and so on.  Every new idea in our world seems to have a virtual connection.

It’s time to recall the old maxim – just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should.

About 6 months ago, word spread throughout the internet that a new era had been born – the online fraternity.  A very entrepreneurial student at Florida Tech created Theta Omega Gamma, an online fraternity with a coed membership.  Here is an excerpt from an article on the Huffington Post:

Florida Institute of Technology student Darrek Battle has founded a fraternity whose house lives online.
Theta Omega Gamma currently has 24 co-ed members who use the hub to socialize and coordinate service projects. Battle told Inside Higher Ed that he created the frat simply because nothing else like it existed.
According to its faculty adviser, Theta Omega Gamma is an average fraternity in all respects minus the "going out together and drinking" aspect.
Battle says he hopes to to help other schools start chapters of TOG.

I returned to Theta Omega Gamma’s website recently and there is a homepage, but no links anywhere.  I’m guessing the idea didn’t last. 


[UPDATE: A new web link was found: http://togfit.org/index.html.  See the comments section]

Was it a good idea?  Nope.  I give the creators of this organization credit for trying to base it around values and service.  A great number of traditional fraternities stopped doing that a long time ago!  I also appreciate that they wanted to create the fraternity that they couldn't find.  The spirit of the idea was fine.  But, the human element was missing. 

In the end, you just can’t digitize fraternity.

The fraternity experience is so powerful because it places members squarely in the emotional cross-hairs of human relationships.  Social networking sites can help you know the basics about a person – their likes, dislikes, history, Farmville needs, etc.  But can they let you REALLY get to know someone?

We really get to know someone when we can be vulnerable with them, and they with us.  Give me one hour with a brother in need, and I will know more about him than any Facebook page, tweet, or chat room could tell me.  For as digital as we have become, there is still no substitute for reading another person’s eyes and seeing emotions show in their face.  No smiley face can ever take the place of a handshake or a hug. 

Brotherhood and sisterhood happens when we strive to live out the values of our organizations side by side.  And, there is a lot of living that takes place away from a keyboard and monitor.

The electricity of human interaction is what makes our experiences so special.  In her book, Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley states: "Truly connecting with another human being gives us joy.  The circumstances that create this connection don’t matter.  Even those who work side by side in the worst natural disaster or crisis recall that experience as memorable.  They are surprised to feel joy in the midst of tragedy, but they always do."

And what about the good times?  Being together in times of laughter and fun is the true definition of the human experience.  I can laugh or chuckle at a Facebook post, and forget it minutes later.  However, I still remember some of the nights with my brothers when we laughed so hard we couldn’t sleep.

Go read online forums for an hour.  Then, go spend the next hour in an airport terminal and see how people greet each other after time apart (or watch the opening scene of the movie Love Actually).  You will see the difference.

Technology can help us do fraternity better, mostly because of its potential for communication.  We can keep alumni members in the loop, raise money for our foundations, have discussions on leadership and Ritual, etc.  It can add to the fraternity experience.

But it can never replace it.

I support progress, and forward movement in our world.  But I just cannot buy into the online fraternity.  It is not a good thing for our movement because it cheapens the definition of fraternity.  Fraternity is that moment when you choose to sit with a brother or sister in silence, just because you know they need somebody there.  It’s the moment when you stand at the front of church with your brother or sister and witness the biggest moment of their life. 

We, as humans, are messy, squishy, confused, terrified, loving, and hopeful baskets of emotion.  The magic happens when we come together – face to face, eye to eye, and hand in hand.  The wonders of our new era of technology cannot change this.

I hope the students of Theta Omega Gamma can find a fraternity that gives them the connection they desire - or perhaps that can create one that isn't online.  

I’m sure there will be other attempts at online fraternities.  Good luck to whoever tries.  They will probably just create a smaller version of Facebook or MySpace, which is great.  

But it ain’t no fraternity.


15 comments:

  1. John, I could not agree with you more. Fraternities are about brotherhood--something you can not find online. You hit the nail on the head with the comment about going out with the brothers. You would never gain the same experiences and memories through an online chat. Another great post.

    Joe @ The Fraternity Blog

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  2. OK, my curmudgeon friend... I'm going to SLIGHTLY disagree with you. As I've learned more about online education in the last couple of years, I've softened my view. I used to think that online education was a joke – how could it compare to those four years I spent living the collegiate experience on a campus? I still think going to a college and being present in the community is preferable to doing your education online. However, for some people (especially a segment of the population who would could not access education another way), online education is a good thing. Maybe not the "ideal" thing, but a good thing. While I agree with you that online brotherhood is not ideal, perhaps the concept of people connecting in a positive manner online (and calling it "fraternity") is not such a horrible thing. What if the concept of online fraternity brings a sense of connection to a young quadriplegic man who learns and interacts from home? What if a non-traditional student supporting two kids and learning at home at night gains a positive feeling about "fraternity" by making connections with like-minded men online? What if every national fraternity and sorority hosted an online chapter for those brothers and sisters who live in foreign lands for some reason? I guess I'm just suggesting that the "ideal" way to experience something shouldn't be the "only" way to experience something. For many, the ideal is not a viable option. The question is, are we willing to be flexible with our model to let more people into the bonds of fraternity?

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    1. Thank you, I read your comment and I like how you put it. I am an online student, I'm 42 with a full time family, work, and school. I attend Lee University in Cleveland TN. From my home in Florida. I do understand the brotherhood thing except the drinking aspect I don't drink. So here is my thought. Most fraternity's have a chapter in each state and members from all over. Once you become a member from online we would be able to contact our brother or sisters in the area and still do those kind of interactions. Just because we do not do the on the campus things does not mean we can not contribute to the cause. Being a part if an organization like this could mean a lot to people who other wise would not have that chance.

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  3. This is an awesome post, John. You make a passionate defense of what gives us our humanity, in that it's not all about titles and labels and friend counts and pragmatism, but the intangible, holistic experience of being there and using all senses to interact with others.

    I think TJ is right, however, in that while online fraternalism is not ideal, it is still good. In fact I dare say that much good (or evil) can come from participation in online communities. As an example, let's look at this network of Greek professionals that we are a part of. While I represent WebGreek, a company selling fraternity websites and chapter management tools, there are other bloggers and twitterers representing Greek Life offices, regional advisors, and students. And sometimes we get to meet at conventions! So while not ideal, we've gotten the chance to exchange ideas.

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  4. I just re-thought all this... While it is hard for me to completely agree, the reality is groups like TOG probably do a better job at representing "fraternity" than many other fraternities out there. I eat my words.

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  5. Thanks for the great comments so far. You have definitely added new thinking to this topic. I know many people have found online networks to be great additions to their lives, and a great way to connect emotionally with others. I don't think we have to call it "fraternity" for those connections to be so.

    I will work 500% harder to help make the "offline" or human fraternity experience inviting and accessible to disabled individuals or working parents (TJ's examples) than I would to build for them an online fraternity experience. I believe that these folks deserve the richness and power of the "ideal" way.

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  6. I am a member of TOG and, a year in, I can assure you that the brotherhood we share is incredibly strong, especially among the core group of us. We have members who live close together who work on community service projects together as a team. We serve our respective communities by working in soup kitchens, adopting shores, working with humane societies, and other organizations. Do we have hazing and weekend drink fests? Not at all. Do we support each other through things? Absolutely. Many of us talk to each other regularly through the week, both online and offline. My brothers and sisters of TOG are very important to me. We have each had difficult situations to deal with, and we have each come to one another's support during those tough times. Would it be great if we could visit in person every month? Sure. Unfortunately, because we are online students, we don't have that opportunity. TOG gives us all an opportunity to have that community that we would otherwise miss out on.

    As for your comment regarding the old website...there were some rough spots when we were getting started. We're a young organization. We do, however, now have a fully functioning site up that you are welcome to visit. The site is located at www.togfraternity.org. We may be nontraditional, and there may be some aspects of Greek life we won't be able to experience together, but that doesn't make our relationships mean any less to us or mean that we don't work just as hard to run an organization that our members, and our school, can be proud of.

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  7. You might check the on line fraternity again at FIT, they have links to their fraternity. You may want to check and double check something before you post a topic that has false information.

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  8. Thanks for posting. I found the link to the fraternity's page that works: http://togfit.org. The other one in my post must be an old link? I'll watch with interest!

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  9. Stephanie-
    Thank you for your comments. My post was directed at the idea of a purely online fraternity, which doesn't seem to be at all what you're describing. The experiences you describe as so important to you are "offline" experiences, which was the point of my post. Those kind of experiences cannot be replaced. And the brotherhood that is developed from those experiences is what makes fraternity so powerful.

    So, I sincerely apologize for misreading TOG, and will now watch with interest. However, I stand by the post as a call against the idea of strictly online fraternities. I wish TOG the best of luck!

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  10. The college I'm at has renamed SAE to Sexual Assault Expected and then there's this little jewel: http://tinyurl.com/2ckmlvd

    It sounds like an online frat, sans alcohol and raging hormones, can actually do good work. And who said they can't meet face to face? Maybe they do, they just don't have a Chapter Room to meet in secret and plan the wonderful community building events as seen in the video.

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  11. Anonymous for the resurrection! :-)

    I came across this article again while searching the archives and am, I suppose, not particularly surprised that, not a year(?) after it's creation, TOG no longer exists. The result of the experiment suggests that John's original assertion stands.

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  12. Who said TOG no longer exists? Sorry to disappoint, but, they are still around and they are growing.

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  13. http://togfraternity.org/index.html

    There is really no point in trying to stop the digital age. Although a sole dependence on it would be bad, due to the fact that if the internet goes to shit, then everyone would be screwed. Aside from that, look at what online schooling has done for so many people. Besides the stupid piece of paper you receive, it's the knowledge you they have gained that sets us apart from the rest of the world. Why keep knowledge from our own people?

    Young students join Fraternities for various reasons, but I could bet that a good majority join one for the sake of belonging to something they consider "cool", which is no more noble of a reason than someone wanting to join an online fraternity. It's so stupid that a freaking "Flash Mob" assembled online or through text message, can be largely effective in it's mission, yet people think that an online college fraternity can't or shouldn't. Isn't that the point of a social group? To bring like minds together (or minds wanting to be liked), for whatever reason? Why should the college social groupings be limited to just those who can afford to go to a 4-year college? For some people, it's just not a feasible goal. Some people's lives don't leave them fortunate enough to even acquire that kind of debt to attend a 4-year, and be able to pay it back afterwards. The online age has done a lot for the world as a whole, yet those old salties still want everything to be limited to how they experienced it. It doesn't make sense to me, but it's the Author's opinion, and I respect that to the fullest.

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