Being Conformed into the Avatar of Christ: Social Networks & Identify Formation

The following was written as a guest post for my friend Robert Johnson who runs the wonderful site www.practicingtheology.com

My Big Confession

Flight of the Conchords: New Zealand's 4th most popular ...On my facebook profile, my favorite TV shows are A-Team and Airwolf because they are hilarious 80s references, Battlestar Galactica because it’s practically required for geek cred, and Arrested Development and Flight of the Concords because they are cool shows that cool people know about.

But I have a confession to make – I only saw like one video clip of Flight of the Concords, and I’m not sure I really got why it was so funny. Please, please don’t tell anyone!

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about why facebook is evil and dumbhow to use facebook biblically, or why I quit facebook. Instead, I’m in how engaging in social networking – whether it’s biblically, atheistically, muslimically, or whatever – shapes the way we look at ourselves and the way we see those around us.

I Am My Avatar, and my Avatar is Mine

I believe that any tool, whether we use it for good or bad, right or wrong, truthfully or untruthfully, shapes the way we look at the world. Just as a photographer sees the world in pictures and a stockbroker sees the world in business transactions, we all see the world through whatever we use most. A wise man once said, “We become what we behold.”

Let’s consider my above confession. I basically lied on facebook which is unbelievably lame. But what if I had told the truth? Certainly, I would be guilty of one less sin, but I still would have engaged in the act of labeling and defining myself through lists of interests, products, quotes, and so on.

It is this listing and friending, categorizing and posting that makes up the substance of social networking and differentiates it from anything that has come before. Every time I change my bio, accept a friend request, make an @reply, or comment on a hilarious video, I am engaging in the act of shaping who I am through the lens of what the website allows. I am choosing parts of myself to emphasize and parts to hide … and parts of myself I made up just to fill in the blank. Over time, I begin to see myself as the character (or “avatar” as it used to be called) I create online, and I begin to see others through the lens of the profile they have created.

A Constantly Visible Identity

Seeing As If Through a Balloon (from Flickr user ohkatherine)In college, I remember quite a few Bible studies on “Identity in Christ.” I remember them saying that God the Father looks at me through the image of God the Son, Jesus Christ. Like our photographer friend who sees the world in the best possible way through his lens, the Father sees me in the best possible way though the Son.

So how do we see ourselves when we look through the lens of a social network? One major feature of our online personas is that they can be quantified, analyzed, and numerically valued at any moment. I always know how many friends, messages, and requests to play zombie games I have.

But our offline lives do not have this ever present record. I cannot quantify the value of crying with a friend over a tragic loss or playing basketball with a fatherless kid. Rarely, if ever are such strong realities recorded. Meanwhile, the mundane, ethereal things of life are ever present and neatly organized on our profiles. Which feels more real and permanent?

In my own life, I have noticed that on days when I don’t receive many wall posts, @replies, or text messages, I often feel insignificant. I’m guessing this is because I have begun to value myself based on how much interaction my my online identity receives. Rather than believing what the Scriptures say about my significance being rooted in the image of God imprinted upon my soul, I see myself through the lens of social networking.

I have become what I beheld.

Believing an Identity We Do Not See

This isn’t meant to be a warning against using social networks – there are plenty of great reasons to use them. The point is for us to be aware that social networking requires us to create an online identity which will always be different from our true identity. No matter how accurate that profile becomes – even if there’s some kind of Princess Leia 3D hologram – it and the interactions it receives will never be our true self. We are each unique creations of God which cannot be copied or duplicated. And those of us who have believed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, also have our identity in the redemption and victory offered through his blood.

So, come, be my friend on facebook, twitter, and the rest, but let us not behold the images we post and the words we write, but less us behold Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3) and the very Word of God (John 1:1), and let us not anchor our identity in the things posted about us online, but on the fact that God has called us “friend” and “sons and daughters.”

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

7 thoughts on “Being Conformed into the Avatar of Christ: Social Networks & Identify Formation”

  1. really, I hope you publish something (in book form) that incorporates your posts. the Lord has given you an incredible ability to see these things clearly and speak on them intelligently.

    one of the reasons I stepped away from blogging and twittering is b/c I felt my soul getting sucked out – the less people interacted with me, the less I valued myself. I decided to redirect my energy toward being with people in live conversations.

    I do not regard these things as evil – I am still facebooking with great delight – but I recognized my inability to incorporate them into my life in a balanced way. that’s just my problem, not necessarily anyone else’s.

    please keep this blog running, JD. it’s right on.

  2. Thanks for posting this John!

    You are helping me think well about the effects of technology on my life and those I influence.

  3. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is required to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web savvy so I’m not 100% certain. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Many thanksKaty Home Security, 4410 Huntwood Hills Ln., Katy, TX 77494 – (281) 394-0477

  4. Hey! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this
    article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.
    Many thanks for sharing!

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