The Problem with Online Persona
Perhaps the shift began when children stopped saying they wanted to be doctors, firemen, and teachers when they grow up and started saying actors, singers, and sports stars. Maybe it began with the manufactured reality of reality TV. Maybe it began when we stopped “going onto the internet” and the internet became the water we swim in. Maybe it began when, out of a need to be viral, every stay-at-home-mom turned her sassy-rants into YouTube shows and every upper-middle-class suburban family turned their life into a reality TV program. I don’t know when it began, but at some point we stopped living like persons and started living like personas.
And the persona has taken over.
The persona allows us to say and do whatever it is our desired audience desires, whatever it takes in fact to maintain the persona and—fingers crossed—turn the persona into a brand. Meanwhile, the person shrinks, and his or her soul along with it.
A couple of times in the last few years I’ve been told “You’re just like you are on Twitter” by people who seem surprised. I’m surprised that they’re surprised. But it’s not exactly true. I’m more extroverted on social media, though I’ve learned to say less about more things, and I don’t usually initiate conversations with people I don’t know. I’ve also been told that I am more ________ than I am online, or less __________ than I am online, suggesting that there is a measuring going on between the real me and the online me and the two me’s don’t exactly look the same. I have thought a lot about that.
Just the fact we think this way is telling. We expect people to be performing. Because a whole lot of us are.
"The more I venture into the 'Christian – Celeb – Speaker' space, the more I am convinced that being gifted is not the same as being godly. It's folks out here that will preach the house down and will step off the stage and live like a whole devil."
This phenomenon is real. But it’s real the other way too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been contacted by someone concerned about someone they know is an acquaintance of mine who comes off like a jerk online, and I say, “They’re not really like that. If you just knew them, you’d see that’s just how they seem on Twitter,” or whatever. Tone speaks as loudly as text on social media, but perhaps even more loudly. And in any event, it’s easy for all of us to slip into soapbox mode, to battle mode, to “proverbial wisdom” mode in social streams, because the medium favors talking, not listening, and it strips away inconvenient things like looking somebody in the eye, reading facial cues, or even using our real names and faces in the first place. What takes over online is The Persona.
The danger, then, is that what will take over in real life is The Persona. What happens when we are so driven to be known a certain way, to build a certain audience, to accumulate a certain number of subscribers, to establish a certain kind of platform that the persona takes over our real life? We cease being able to see real-life people —whether online or in day-to-day life—as image-bearers, as people who don’t deserve to be used for our platform, derided for our pleasure, mocked for our exaltation, maligned for our advancement. When we think of ourselves as personas, we de-humanize ourselves, and when we de-humanize ourselves, we dehumanize others too. (This is the easy criticism of the anonymous trolls on Twitter—I mean, the ones who aren’t literally bots. They have de-personed their persona, and thus make it easy to dehumanize the real people they target every day.)
Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites.” Today we know a hypocrite to be someone who says one thing while doing another. This is a good understanding. But the word’s original meaning—and I think Jesus’s intent—comes from the concept of playacting: ὑποκριταί (hypokritai) refers to actors who painted their faces and played someone they really aren’t. For the Pharisees and scribes, the lie had taken over, become second nature. Outwardly they looked good, but inside they were rotting. But the rot began to seep out through the cracks in the facade. The makeup started running.
We weren’t designed to be double-minded. We weren’t made to playact, to posture. It’s impossible to keep The Persona from taking over. Whatever we put our heart into, whatever we worship, we will become. So if your online persona is abrasive, domineering, argumentative, critical, you don’t get to say for long, “That’s not really me.” You is who you is. Let’s take care that our online yes and no match up with real life, in the right way.
And if we don’t want to cringe when we hear that who we are in real life is who we are online (and vice versa), I suppose we ought to take care how we think, speak, and act in both places. We don’t check the fruit of the Spirit at the door of the login screen. Our obligation to “outdo one another showing honor” (Rom. 12:10) applies as much to our online selves as our in-real-life selves, perhaps more so given the greater temptation to treat people like less than people online.
"Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded."
— James 4:8