Is Your True Sense Of Self And Identity At Risk As You Navigate An Online World?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the ECHO Conference in Dallas for the first time, and for my topic I decided to address an issue that I have been wrestling with for quite some time — Not Losing Yourself in Social Media. It’s a topic that has been near and dear to my heart as I have continually struggled to maintain my sense of self and identity in an online world. I know that If I’m not careful I can easily get caught up in the online identities that I construct for myself, or that I allow for others to distort/enhance/exaggerate for me.

There were lots of different aspects of this idea that I shared with the audience, but I wanted to share a portion of it with you today.

I want to begin with some of the online challenges to maintaining our identity, and in the next post I will follow up with some boundaries that we can implement that may be helpful for you in maintaining your identity and fostering your sense of self.

Longing for Face to Face
I love Paul’s words in I Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully. Even as I am fully known.” We have this longing desire to see others face to face, and to be fully known by others. For now that desire is distorted as we only get a poor glimmer of who we are. But we are longing really to be seen for who we are — for others to love us and accept in everything that they see.

But the dilemma for many in a technological driven culture is that instead of in person, face to face relational contact, we often settle for a cheaper version of it. We often would rather limit our face to face through a technological tool, often with social media acting as the medium. We would rather email, chat, text, tweet and use Apple’s Face to Face, then to have the real encounter.  We believe that the version we can construct of ourselves through technology is better, or maybe more likable to others.  In the exchange we slowly begin the process of losing our true self.

The problem is that our best opportunity for really being known, for really allowing others to see us “face to face” is when we are in direct, unmediated relation with one another. I love the declaration of Adam in Genesis 2:23 when he at last declares that he has found “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” It’s in Adam’s encounter with the other that he moves from “earth creature” to “man.” Adam becomes himself.

It is in our encounter with others in our lives, unmediated by technology, that I believe we have the fullest opportunity to become, and to be ourselves. To claim our true self that God created, and live out our identity in Christ.

The Technological Hindrances to Identity and Self
There is lots of literature on the topic of technology and its influence on identity, and I believe that even more is being written as we begin to see more readily the effects of its use on our daily lives.  Both the intended and unintended consequences.  But four theories that I have read up on and that I think are helpful in understanding the challenges that technology can pose to our identity come from the following:

  1. Albert Borgmann’s “device paradigm” which stems from his 1964 work, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (HT: to John Dyer for introducing me to this).  A device is a technological process available at the press of a button.  Because of this we often don’t see the processes being performed.  As it gets more and more complex it begins to compress the process.  For example, picking a burger up at fast food has compressed the process/relationship that used to exist in making/getting/eating a burger.  This process happens to relationships as well.  Technological processes like a follow/unfollow on Twitter, or a like/unlike on Facebook compresses relationships.  Without the process, and the interaction with the other, we begin to lose our sense of self.


  2. Kenneth Gergen’s “saturated self” which derives from his 1991 book, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. In short, Gergen states that in the formation of relationships we often use mediating technologies (i.e. cell phones, internet, computer based applications, etc.) — and if we lack an inner core/identity, then we experience what he calls multiphrenia (identities that are shaped/formed by too many choices of self expression).  Ultimately that process gives us what Gergen calls the “saturated self” which is when our self exists as a collection of external images (i.e. online profiles, platforms, flickr images, avatars, blog logos, etc.).

  3. Andrew F. Wood’s and Michael J. Smith’s “mediated self” which comes from their 2004 book, Online Communication: Linking Technology, Identity, and Culture.  In the book they say “the ‘mediated self’ constructs a sense of ‘who I am,’ through interaction with others through various media.” Simply, you construct your sense of identity through the lens of the media you use (blog, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, FourSquare, etc.)

  4. David Schnarch’s “reflected sense of self” from his book, Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships. In his book he says “When we have little differentiation our identity is constructed out of what’s called a ‘reflected sense of self’. We need continual contact, validation, and consensus (or disagreement) from others. This leaves us unable to maintain a clear sense of who we are in shifting or uncertain circumstances. We develop a contingent identity based on a ‘self-in-relationship.'” This “reflected sense of self” is often what drives one partner into an affair, because they like and desire the “reflected sense of self” the affair partner reflects back to them, then the reality that the spouse presents.  This can happen in social media very easily as we often hop online, liking our “reflected sense of self” we receive from the online identities we have constructed and the adoration that they receive from others.  Many choose to have an affair with their online life and social media world, at the expense of their spouse and family.

As you look at just four of the theories that can present challenges to us living out of our true selves in an online world, do any of them resonate with you?  Do you see yourself struggling with any particular issue?

Stay tuned for the next post when I will talk about some of the boundaries that you can implement in your own life to help you stay grounded as you navigate the online world.

10 Comments

  1. by Ken Miller on August 4, 2010  12:17 pm Reply

    Great article. Was just having this conversation with a colleague. I tend to identify with Schnarch, constantly struggling with the time I spend on social media.

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  3. by angela on August 4, 2010  1:50 pm Reply

    I appreciate you sharing this at Echo and now here. It's something I've struggled with as of late, but because social media is part of my job, I was convinced I always had to be wired. I felt like your session gave me permission to unplug at specific times, and I already feel better (and more myself) for it. So thank you. I hope you'll keep this conversation going.

  4. by John L on August 7, 2010  10:45 pm Reply

    Rhett, sounds like a new chapter for DSM-IV :-)

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  7. by bradley on September 16, 2010  12:57 am Reply

    ringing in my ears ... has me wondering, if its myself going in circles or if it is a expeirance. that is caused by a electrical current, that is the discovery of a pipeline, that tranports any object with no weight (such as thoughts) of one"s mind.possiabality are endless? and if so, this is possible. where does a person locate his vault of this thoughts?

    • by Lavona Kreuziger on September 11, 2015  4:02 am Reply

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