I gave a presentation last night at the Friends of the Bethel Library meeting and one theme seemed to come up over and over again. That has to do with how our use of online social networks make our lives more public and our identities more co-created. I began with the notion that many freshmen students share--it isn't real until it's on Facebook. In other words, Facebook becomes a place where students can build a cohesive narrative of what is happening. Together they can figure out things like "is it cool to wear flip-flops in winter?", "is playing a lot of video games good or bad?", "is it o.k. if I miss a lot of class?", and "should I keep dating my boyfriend?" With every picture they post, a clearer perspective of who they are and how they fit into this community develops. On one hand, Facebook allows students to become part of a community in ways that were not possible before. If they aren't socially charming or outgoing, that's o.k. because they can be part of the narrative simply by sitting in their room and posting fun sayings or cute pictures. Facebook helps builds cohesiveness because students see things at the same time and experience the same things together--much like what happened to our country when we all sat together and watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. Facebook builds a cohesive narrative.
The second thing is that Facebook builds what Sherri Turkle calls "a tethered self". This tethered self is one that is constantly connected to the broader social web. Whether it be through the computer or the smart phone, our social companions are always with us. This public way of living can change us. Instead of thinking through certain decisions, weighing the implications, we simply ask our social companions what they think. What car should I buy? What should I make for dinner? Where should we go for vacation? which classes should I take? I could make up my own mind, but its easier to just get my friends' opinions. Another implication to living a public lifestyle is that we feel obligated to share our feelings. And I mean every feeling. If I'm frustrated with my roommate, sad about a test, worried about the future, or guilty about a behavior, I had better share it with my social web. In other words, if I am having a feeling, I need to find a friend. Or I need a friend, so I need to find a feeling.
Think about some of these implications. Instead of feeling something, thinking about it, mediating on what God is trying to show me, considering how I might be at fault, then strategizing how to respond, I simply whip out my cell phone and share my feeling with my 100 best friends. As we live our lives in an increasingly public way, we lose that sense of self that stands in between the relationships. We lose a sense of who we are and who God wants us to be. Instead, we become who our social web says we should become.
Living a public life can be fun and can provide terrific ways to communicate the things that are important to us. What we need to be aware of is that when we increasingly become the person our Facebook profile says we are, we miss out on the depth of understanding our complexity, our unique giftings, and our ultimate purpose. Instead of shaping ourselves in the image of Jesus Christ, we begin to shape ourselves into the self that has been conveniently socially constructed for us. Sometimes, there is a big difference. Sometimes taking time to untether, de-publicize, and disconnect may be just what we need to really find out who we are and why we are here.