You can follow me on Twitter (please). You can be my friend on Facebook (please, please). You can (please, please, please) read my articles. You can learn who I am (hi). You can become familiar with my preferences, opinions, foibles, and gifts. You can choose to love me or reject me (love me). And all of this, you can do without ever even knowing me.
This reality is both a new challenge and old hat. We’ve always gotten to know other human beings from afar. Celebrities have always had to struggle with the double-edged sword of public adoration and the relentless curiosity and entitlement that comes with it. The main difference is that now, most of us live public lives on a worldwide forum. Most of us find some sort of substantial forum with at least the potential for mass exposure. Most of us are already celebrities.
Even those who reject the modern expectations of constantly updated Facebook and Twitter accounts still find ways to express their opinions, even if only about Facebook and Twitter themselves. You don’t have to look too hard to find a blog post or printed piece about the inherent evils of social networking. “Now everyone thinks they have something to say that must be heard,” say those who have something to say that they’d like you to hear.
“Our livelihood and ability to flourish hinges on the perception of others. Any situation or medium will exacerbate that, and there will always be those around us willing to exploit it.”But just like that kind of mild hypocrisy, the desire for fame and recognition is a deep human struggle. While some pursue Facebook abstinence partially because they’re afraid of losing the respect of those who might follow them, others indulge in Facebook and Twitter because we want a platform through which to pursue that respect.
Outside of social media, we face the same struggles with appearance, status, and respect. Children are raised to follow in their parents’ footsteps and to make their parents proud. Our professional reputation has an immediate impact on our personal identity and emotional well-being. Our status in our churches and communities fills us with pride or shame.
Our livelihood and ability to flourish hinges on the perception of others. Any situation or medium will exacerbate that, and there will always be those around us willing to exploit it.
If you follow me on Twitter or are my friend on Facebook, I hope you see that I am honest with you. I hope you can see that I am an open and authentic person. I hope you can see that I am deeply religious and genuinely thoughtful. I hope you can see that I am an empathetic person. I hope you can see that I am passionate and fun-loving.
I hope you can see these things, but when I really think about it, I don’t know if I really am these things. I try to be, but more often I merely try to project these things. My concern with being is all too often subservient to an obsession with presentation.
Here is how I know: when I am successful in winning the praise or attention of others, I feel loved and validated. When I’m not, I feel rejected and alienated. When I am finally outside of my own head, focused on serving others with my specific gifts and opportunities, I am finally free. Whether you respond to me with accolades on Twitter or Facebook doesn’t matter anymore. Whether there are zero or 100 positive comments on my post no longer dominates my attention. I have served Christ’s church the best way I can.
But getting out of my own head is an incredibly difficult task when so many others are implicitly inquiring about what’s inside of it. That’s a reality not just of the modern internet age, but of living in the midst of community. People watch one another and make judgments based on what is presented to them and how it is presented. Far too often, those judgments are hasty and uncharitable, or even worse, apathetic and disinterested.
Many arguments against social media involve the insistence that “no one cares what you had for breakfast.” What we actually know to be true is that people who care about one another also care about the mundane things. They actively care about my breakfast, my bad hair day, and my commute to work. They talk about these things in active, engaged conversations.
If there is any danger in social media, it’s the ability to feign disinterest while gorging on the details. It’s the worst of both worlds, and a similar approach to the modern response to celebrities: who cares about Justin Bieber? HOW DARE HE! Wait, are you telling me this Miley Cyrus stuff is actually news? SHE IS BEYOND THE PALE. We reject our cake and devour it too.
In the same way, we harshly judge one another from behind screens. We roll our eyes and gossip to our spouses about the ways certain Facebook posts have defied our personal tastes. We unfollow and hide from newsfeed liberally, because to us, the internet is about entertainment and personal preference. If our friends aren’t catering to those expectations, we grow impatient.
Community is no longer limited to the four physical walls that enclose us during a dinner fellowship. It branches out and expands through wires and servers. God has commanded us to strive to actively love and care for those around us. These days, that means letting that commitment overflow liberally into our online interactions as well. Maybe, after a bit of practice, we’ll be able to gawk at one another’s selfies and baby pictures and praise what they represent at the same time.
This article was adapted from the editor’s letter in the most recent issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, “The Price of Being Known.”