The selfie, pt. II: Digital presence

Posted Jan 09, 2017 | New Media Project

By Nick Buck

In my first post on the selfie, I insisted on understanding the selfie in its relational, social context. At the very end of the post, I offered a brief suggestion as to why social media has become so popular. It seems, at least in part, that its explosion in popularity can be understood as a response to an alienating social milieu of hyper-individualism and privatization. There are, to be sure, a number of explanations at work here, but this seems to be one of the most powerful.

If I am at least partially correct about this, that some of the impulse for social media use is attributable to a socializing impulse felt most acutely by those who have become isolated, then a number of questions emerge. One of the more interesting ones is: what does it mean to be with someone, and can that happen digitally?

In addressing this question, I suggest we think about the term “digital” in two ways. First, in its immediate sense of mediation by some form of digital technology. This is, of course, what we mean nearly all of the time by the word. However, this can be pressed to evoke a second, related sense of the word; “digital” can be understood more etymologically as finger or appendage and thereby as an extension of one’s self. To extend a digit is to stretch out in “space”, as it were – to extend one’s being. We experience the being of others in terms of their presence. The extension of presence is even implied in the first sense of the word in thinking about mediation. 

The customizable, dynamic, and social elements of new media only intensify the sense in which we are extended or can extend ourselves. These have enhanced the particular sense of digital personality and thus the way in which we can be present to one another digitally. This presence is no longer simply a matter of the projection of an image, but rather something more intimate, authentic, and relational. The notion of the mediation of presence is rather intimate to several Christian traditions and opens the door for further theological reflection, both on the general notion of presence and the specific example of the Eucharist. (1)

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that digital interaction via new media should become the only way people join in one another’s presence. And, interestingly, some recent data shows this actually isn’t happening, at least among younger generations. (2) But it should help us to rethink the complexity of the digital dimension of our lives, not least what we’re doing when we take selfies and post them on social media.


(1) I’m not necessarily trying to hold new media and the Eucharist closely together, but they both (at least for some traditions) invoke notions of presence and its mediation. This is especially evident when considering the taking of the Eucharist online.

(2) “[O]ur findings indicate that SNS [social-networking site] use and cellular-phone communication facilitate offline social interaction, rather than replace it.” Wade C. Jacobsen and Renata Forste, “The Wired Generation: Academic and Social Outcomes of Electronic Media Use Among University Students,” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 14.5 (2011), 279.

Nick Buck is the associate director of the New Media Project.

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



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