Who are you online and who are you talking to? Would your friends or colleges say that you’re the same when they interact with you online as offline or perhaps you maintain multiple online personalities?
The rise of online social media has created new extension of ourselves in virtual environments of our own choosing. Do we behave the same online? Is it a problem if we behave differently and is it a new challenge to Christian living?
I’m sure many are familiar with the social media personality stereotypes; the lurker, the liker and the attention seeker. If not a quick search will soon fill you and in and probably provide a few laughs as well.
However even some psychology articles from a decade ago such as this one from Joan Suler: http://users.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/persontypes.html suggest some identifiable personality archetypes manifest themselves in our online presence. However Joan later points out that people may change their personality depending where they are, or by choice.
This shouldn’t be surprising though, since many of us can attest to behaving differently at work vs at home or with an acquaintance vs our best friends.
In the online world
What is different about social media though is that much of our public communication is composed and then sent. Giving us pause to check what we say and to portray ourselves as we choose. In an article by Meghan Casserly, she reports on a selection of business representatives and how they use social media.
Many of them attested to maintaining multiple personalities, ranging from social to business to in some cases partitioning their followers into common interest groups.
This highlights a trend of tailoring our personal images to achieve our goals, whether they be acceptance or self assurance. Given these insights it appears that, conscious or subconscious our mental process for composing a post or status are different to when we talk face to face.
The potential for anonymity
The Internet also brought with it another fascinating extension of our personalities, the potential for anonymity. While social media ties everything to our virtual presence, there are countless forums and sites where one can put forward ideas and critiques while keeping their identity separate (However with data retention laws in many jurisdictions this is partially disappearing).
Additionally this is another reason why some users of social networking sites create alternative online personalities. Behind these masks and behind these walls who are we really? By creating these alternate realities or segments of ourselves our we lying to others? Are we lying to ourselves?
A Christian response
I would suggest that it is a fine line to tread. A theme used commonly throughout the Bible is that of light being synonymous with truth and Christ for example both Mathew and John make frequent use of it.
In 1 John chapter 4 we are given comfort that we are children of light and in Ephesian Chapter 5 we read that, “Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)” (NIV Ephesians Ch. 5 vs. 8b-9) so although this is by no means an extensive overview, quite quickly we can see how as Christians we are to conduct ourselves in the light.
How then is your Internet personality different to a mask you might wear at work? It seems apparent that we must be consistent as Christians both on and offline.
Looking to the needs of others
Taking this another step further though is the potential to make a difference to others. While social media is great, like words, as the writer of James suggests, do not feed a starving man. We should care for those in our online communities, being ready to get up out of the comfort of our virtual worlds and help them when they need it. What a great opportunity it is to pray for those with a questioning heart or who are suffering, sick or in need.
While it is easy to be passive online so as not to offend, we are Christians first, both online and offline and forevermore washed to the blood of Jesus Christ. This is not a new challenge to Christian living, it is the same challenge and the same opportunity to show God’s love, as has been in front of us since the great commission. So let us acknowledge his presence in thought, word and deed online.
Sam Gillespie is a composer, programmer and PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales.Sam Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-gillespie.html