Internet Anonymity, Like Fig Leaves and AA, Can Be a Means of Grace

There has been quite a bit of recent discussion asking how “real” Internet community is. However, for me, it’s more helpful to ask, “What kind of community is the Internet distinctly good at creating?” One answer is that the Internet is good at fostering anonymity.

Of course, we all know that anonymity can have a very negative impact on a person and their actions, but it can also be a very powerful tool for certain kinds of ministry. The following video about Tim Kimberley, a pastor in Portland, OR who runs helives.com is a great example:

Tim, who is also a dear friend of mine, says,

There are many people who feel more comfortable behind their keyboard than behind a pew. The Internet seems like such an anonymous place. It seems like such a place where people can pretend whoever they’re going to be. What we found, especially with teenagers is that online a teenagers has no reason to lie.

They’re anonymous in the identity, but they’re not anonymous in their heart. And so we had teenagers say things to us that are so raw . I would think to myself, ‘A teenager would never walk up to me in church and ask me what they just asked me.’

With helives.com, Tim has harnessed Internet anonymity and used it to create a healing environment for teens.

The First Anonymizer

Using some level of anonymity to deal with sin and shame is nothing new. The very first human technology, according to the Scriptures was used for this very purpose:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Gen. 3:7)

The physical protection offered by the fig leaves also serves as a metaphor for the protections we need to put up in order to survive in our sin-cursed world. Graciously, God immediately gave their invention a free upgrade and, to this day, all our technology functions in some way to protect us from the effects of the Fall.

Along the way, we hopefully find a few people with whom we can gradually strip away our protective layers, reveal our true selves, and find the healing that can only take place in community with others.

Anonymity and Healing in the “Real” World

Unfortunately, not everyone finds trustworthy people with whom they can share their hurts. This means that sometimes we need to create “artificial” environments where we can experience healing relationship.

Alcoholics Anonymous declares in its name that it uses anonymity as a means to deal with alcoholism. In a similar way, the counseling office and the confession booth introduce “artificial” walls which make us feel safe enough to expose the areas of our life that need healing. Like the protective cloth in a operating room that covers every part of the body except that which needs surgery, these environments provide us a safe place where others can work on what’s broken.

Remembering the Teleology

For all the healing power that an anonymous environment can provide, the one danger is believing that we can remain in such “artificial” environments indefinitely. The lesson of the Ring of Gyges (for Plato lovers) and the One Ring (for Tolkien lovers) was that invisibility/anonymity is too powerful for anyone to control. Eventually, we must trek back out into the real world, hopefully strengthened to handle what may come.

If a community does employ anonymity, it must have a teleology – a purpose or end point – or it runs the risk of actually making us worse off. For helives.com, it is being spiritually nourished to handle teenage life. For AA, it is dealing with alcoholism so one can have a healthy adult life. However, it seems that online communities with no purpose that do not equip us for our “real” lives should be avoided.

We must remember that the Internet is good at certain things and not good at others. Knowing the difference will help us better understand what we should and should not attempt to use it for, and hopefully help us create redemptive environments that equip us to live in the “real” world until Christ returns.

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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/.

12 thoughts on “Internet Anonymity, Like Fig Leaves and AA, Can Be a Means of Grace”

    1. Rhett, I intentionally mentioned counseling to refer to you and the ideas about online counseling you’ve mentioned. I’d love to know more about the language counselors use to talk about the counselor/counselee relationship,

  1. John – great post!

    I loved the concept of “the first anonymizer.” Specifically, how you connect the fig leaves as the first technological invention to cover Adam and Eve’s shame with the anonymity of the internet that covers our shame today.

    I’ve had a light bulb moment since reading your post and it’s raised a question for me that I’ve never considered:

    So, with McLuhan’s premise that media is an extension of our humanity and your statement that “all our technology functions in some way to protect us from the effects of the Fall.”…do you think that the Fall was the reason why we needed and created technology in the first place?

    1. Drew, great to hear from you!

      Questions about whether the Fall was necessary or not are way “outside my pay grade”:) But I have noticed two interesting things about the fall and technology. First, after the story of Cain and Abel in Gen. 4, it is Cain’s pagan descendants who create music, metal tools, and husbandry while nothing is mentioned about what Seth’s line created. Second, the portrait of the eschaton is always a city, not a garden. A city of course needs technology of some kind. So whatever the cause, it looks like our future will involve some kind of technology. Yeah!

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