On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

Posted Oct 12, 2011 | New Media Project


By Jim Rice

Last week Gail Song Bantum, a pastor at Quest Church in Seattle, wrote a post on the New Media Project blog that raised questions about identity and honesty in our online personas. Who, she asked, are we portraying ourselves to be in our social media posts? Are we trying to show ourselves as deep thinkers, by offering the “most profound quote of the day”? Are we basically showing off, she asks, by coming across as “the Christian intellectual where nobody understands our theological deconstructive jargon?” Or do we over-share in a misguided attempt to be “real”?

For Gail, these issues of online identity raise integrity questions. Are we being genuine in how we portray ourselves online? Are our blog posts and Facebook postings really just a form of “marketing” ourselves, or our institutions? (I’m pretty sure the term “marketing” carried some negative connotations in that usage.) She questions whether we’re showing our “true selves” online, and asks, “What image of ourselves are we conveying to the world? What are we hiding? What are we flaunting?”

I certainly can’t argue with some of the questions she raises, or with their rhetorical implications. We can easily point to many examples of the kinds of behavior she’s questioning, from self-aggrandizement to buffoonery and from TMI to taking on false identities.

But there are some important distinctions to be made here. Identity fraud is one thing; playing a particular role in a particular medium is another.

We all have different roles to play in the various aspects of our lives, and we don’t act the same in every venue. When I’m home with my kids, I may be goofy and playful, while such behavior would be inappropriate in many workplace situations. My role as wife and mother is different than my role as pastor and preacher. (Okay, that one’s hypothetical, since I’m neither of the four.) The point, though, is that we take on different “personas,” depending on the situation.

And that’s a perfectly appropriate thing to do.

I’m glad that my pastor is thoughtful and serious when she’s preaching, and I’m glad that she’s personable and funny (and even a little flippant) when I run into her and her kids at the community pool. Neither one of these is necessarily her complete and total “true self,” which I would assume is a combination of all of the public personas plus a mix of the deep-inside-her-soul stuff as well.

When we present ourselves online, we’re offering one side of who we are. We’re playing a role, in a way, one that makes sense in the public arena. But it’s not the whole picture, nor should it be.

It finally comes down to a question of discernment: What is the appropriate language and behavior for the setting I’m in? What persona do I offer in this situation? If the image you’re putting out there is antithetical to who you really are, then yes, that raises questions of integrity and honesty. But sometimes, on the Internet, it’s none of their business if you’re a dog or not.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.



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