There’s an episode of the American version of The Office in which Jim and Dwight play an online game called “Second Life.” In this game (or, multi-user virtual environment), players create an avatar of themselves that lives a day-to-day life controlled by the player. Jim creates an avatar to prank Dwight and, when Pam sees it, she is struck by a few of the features of Jim’s avatar: he plays guitar, lives in Philadelphia, and works as a sports writer. Unlike Dwight’s avatar, who is exactly like Dwight in every way (except he can fly), none of these things are true about Jim in real life; they seem to represent some sort of longing or wish fulfillment, a life that could have been. He creates a “second Jim” that is everything the real Jim seems to wish he was himself. Even Pam ends the scene with “I want to see more of Philly Jim. I want Philly Jim!”
There is a side to this sort of playing make-believe that is fairly innocuous and, at times, even laudable. When little kids dress up as firefighters or superheroes, they are essentially doing something very similar: putting on a second identity and embodying that for a limited time. There is something aspirational and good about little boys and girls pretending they are performing heroic deeds in the world, saving people from burning buildings or rescuing them from dubious villains. On another level, I have several friends who pick funny or tough-sounding screen names for themselves when they play games online or even as their Twitter or Instagram handle. Again, this feels fairly innocuous. Part of what draws us into the online world is this very ability to refine or redefine our identity with a few keyboard strokes.
However, when we bring this sort of aspirational projection into the more public forums of social media, we begin to cross the line between the world of play and the world of public relations. One of the most formidable powers (and dangers) of social media is that we have the ability to create a “second life” online that influences how people view us offline. Depending on our social distance from our friends and followers, we can use social media to sell people a version of ourselves that we wish we were. If we wish to appear as put-together parents, we can take a highly curated picture of the one corner of our house free of laundry and toys and post it on Instagram. If we wish to appear as socially aware, we can spend five minutes sifting through articles on The Atlantic and share one on Facebook.
Reputation, the standing we have in the eyes of our community, is one of the most powerful social motivators we have for growth as people. As human beings, we do not simply want to be people of character; we want to be known as people of character. This is a good thing – it’s part of how God has wired our societies to function. In the Scriptures, reputation is normally the key factor in a community’s decision to elect a person as a leader over them; it is how a community collectively declares, “We trust this person.” A good reputation is earned through a life lived in the public and private sphere with integrity to certain principles that are valued by that community.
But, what if you could short circuit that process? What if instead of having to change your actual day-to-day life and make tough, sacrificial decisions to prove yourself to your community, there existed a platform on which you could simply announce yourself as a person who believes certain things about the world and let people assume that these beliefs were the guiding principle of your lived action? This is precisely what social media offers us – the chance to craft a persona that may or may not have any correlation at all to our life offline.
The danger in doing this is not simply that we are telling half- or non-truths about ourselves, though that is certainly a problem. The more subtle and deeper danger is that we will be deceived by our own mythos into believing that we truly have become the person whose image we falsely project online. If we can convince our community that we are someone who deeply cares about an issue simply because we rant about it on Facebook, what incentive is left for us to actually live a life marked by that concern?
This is one of the temptations of what people often call “hashtag activism” or social media activism. In our day of unparalleled access to information and venues through which to share that information, it is impossible to actively respond to every social evil we see happening in the world around us. It is much easier to simply announce your position on an issue or injustice online than to get involved in it directly. Simply put, why would I miss work to drive to a protest downtown when I can just sit at my laptop and retweet what other people are posting from the action? Why would I lead my community to stop shopping at stores that enslave children in developing nations when I can share an article someone else wrote and secretly shop at that store online?
Now, of course, there is a certain value in simply sharing information about issues about which many people may be ignorant. I have personally learned a lot about a number of topics because my friends posted about them online. However, in our desire to “raise awareness” uncoupled from meaningful action, we inevitably rob ourselves of the social incentive to get involved in the fight because we are so easily able to convince ourselves and others that we are doing our part by posting online. This is doubly bad in that our desire for others’ “awareness” often convinces them as well that once they are “aware” of the issue, their work is done too. They are simply following our lead that posting online is all the action one needs to take.
To summarize, one of the temptations we face with social media is the temptation to remake our public image without doing the hard work of remaking our private lives, to live a “second life” online that has very little to do with our real life. Whether its our marriage or our parenting skills or our political engagement, this ability to adjust perception without adjusting reality exists on every level. So how do we fight against this? How do we fight for integrity between who we are in our everyday lives and who we project ourselves to be on social media? Here are a couple thoughts:
Set an Integrity Rule for Yourself and/or Your Family
In our age, I see this as a legitimate spiritual discipline. If you’re a parent, perhaps you could decide that for every two pictures of your children looking perfectly groomed, you will post one picture of a disaster moment from your household that day. If you’re a pastor or ministry leader, you could decide that for every story you success story you share about your leadership online you will spend an hour investing in an up-and-coming leader in your community. If you’re someone who loves posting about political issues, maybe you decide that for every article you share, you’ll also share (and commit to going) to a local event where you and others can take action on that cause or a creative way for people to get involved privately.
The important thing for us is to ask ourselves the question, “When other people view me on social media, are they seeing who I actually am in real life?” If you cannot answer yes to that question, adopt some sort of discipline to begin moving toward integrity. Start small and commit to moving forward from where you are.
Ask for Feedback
As I mentioned in my introductory post, I have said some silly things online that I have later had to go back and repent for both publicly and privately. One of the things I have learned from these embarrassing moments is that I need external feedback to keep my integrity in check when it comes to social media. For me, my wife is the best source of this feedback as she both loves me deeply and is deeply committed to the truth; she cares how I am perceived by my community and pushes me to be honest and caring in how I present myself online.
Who in your life could you ask to provide you with honest feedback on your social media life? What if you lifted your eyes for a moment and asked someone else to read that Tweet before you sent it? What if you showed somebody else that picture of yourself before you posted it on Snapchat or Instagram? What if you gave a couple people in your community permission to call you out if you were failing to live up to the ideals you project on Facebook? Again, the specifics are not as important as the commitment to integrity. Deception thrives in darkness and isolation; how could you begin to bring yourself into the light of real relationships and vulnerability?
The temptation to shortcut the process of true change and growth by deceiving ourselves and others with our online persona is real and strong. As followers of Jesus, we must be committed to the truth at every turn, particularly the truth of our own brokenness and the power that Jesus alone (and not our social deception) has to make us new.