I Post Therefore I Am
I remember visiting Oxford a couple of years back and taking a tour of C.S. Lewis’s church. It was said that many people who attended with him were surprised by his more wildly popular writings, because in person he never seemed especially pious. A visit to his home (aka “the Kilns”) certainly confirmed this. It’s almost like reading the words of a person who otherwise never existed. Several hundred years prior, Martin Luther became an overnight sensation, because he actually gave the printers something to print—a publisher’s dream in the early days of a very irrelevant printing press. Like Lewis, Luther was largely known by people who never met him, as is the case today for many writers as well as various other kinds of artists. We know them through their content.
Today the dynamic has shifted. With the advent of social media the number of people producing content has risen exponentially in only a few years. I’ve noticed that it’s always the same experience. I put my thumb to the screen and scroll down. Pictures, comments, and articles appear—the usual kinds of posts from the same people. Maybe that experience is what got you here today. But sometimes my feed strays from the norm. It’s a “like” or a comment, a picture, something new. I think I haven’t had a real-time interaction with this person in years—not face-to-face, not over the phone or through video chat, not even an email exchange. Before a chance encounter with this content I forgot that person even existed.
It’s a strange feeling, but maybe it’s a deep-seated sentiment that prompts us to post comments and pictures, to produce content in the first place. Soon we might begin to ask: have people forgotten about me? What kind of content must I produce that I might not be forgotten. But how much of that content truly represents our everyday, physical lives? Known in person one way and online in another, it’s so easy to find ourselves caught between two existences reminiscent in some ways of the mind-body dualism championed by Renee Descartes amidst the tumultuous Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), a European struggle for identity.
While cartesian philosophy sees a distinction of personhood, between body and soul, the age of social media has given rise to a new kind of dualistic anthropology. A person is present in the physical and digital. Offering an escape from the physical, like its cartesian predecessor, our current dualism is potentially treacherous offering confused and muddled answers to one of life’s most basic questions: who am I? What is my real identity? Though the emergence of a technologically influenced anthropology is nothing new, prosthetics being commonplace—I wear contacts every day—that dualism spawned by digital presence affords us new ways to re-create ourselves in one world while remaining the same or even degenerating in the other. I’m reminded of the human experience illustrated in the Pixar film “Wall-E.” The physical existence is ignored altogether. Whereas the latter dualism is derived from the former—social media being a means for expression of the mind/soul—it is distinctively different in its contingency upon the experience of others. With a world in turmoil, as in the time of Descartes, the digital soul emerges in as far as it’s acknowledged by others. I post, therefore I am.
I think that the question of identity—who am I?—frightens a lot of people, and it’s so much more settling if you can convince yourself that you’re in control of the answer. We’re usually the ones overseeing our own presence on social media, restricting our interactions within our own parameters and boundaries, dictating the content by which we’ll be known. There are also tragic exceptions to this as digital presence opens us up to someone else dominating that content. Online bullying has had paralyzing and other extremely harmful effects on individuals, which goes to show how important this digital identity has become. People have ended their physical lives because of it.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—they’re all different media. They’re means. They’re not inherently falsifiers nor do they have to be used as weapons. In fact, in oppressive societies, social media has become a tool for liberation. But have you ever seen someone who appears so “with it” or so artistic on social media and then you meet them face to face, and it’s the dullest experience you’ve had all week? You realize that it’s just a façade. I’m always let down when that happens. I had a somewhat similar experience at the 2019 LCMS Convention in July and met so many kind, considerate people face-to-face, fellow pastors, very humble. I had many pleasant conversations and others that weren’t comfortable, but they were respectful. It was refreshing but also disheartening, because, knowing what’s said online, I couldn’t always tell if those face-to-face conversations were even real. It’s so easy to speak maliciously with confident, arrogant assertions online about those with whom you disagree while your physical presence hides behind a screen. But maybe that’s the draw. It brings to my mind the 1989 movie “Batman.” I’m not referring to the Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic but rather Michael Keaton—I’m a big fan—putting on fake muscles and a costume to play an imaginary super hero.
I’m not saying that we should avoid technology or online presence, but I do encourage you to be careful that you put effort into being realistic about the way you present yourself and speak about others. Becoming lost in your own self-misrepresentation, living vicariously through it, is a very dangerous thing. Be aware of how easily a chasm between the physical and the digital can emerge, and that validation in the latter doesn’t determine validation in the former. Most importantly, our presence on social media doesn’t win for us validation before God. When Jesus said “come follow me,” he wasn’t referring to his Twitter account. Digital presence or not we exist because God has created us from the dust of the earth, and he wants us to be here no matter how we are treated and perceived online. No matter what we post, no matter how hard we try, we’re not in control of our own identities. Before all else, we commend our lives to the one who lost his physical life and took it up again winning for us presence in a physical reality that will have no end. I trust in Christ, therefore I am.