For one, in the “non-instrumental and…moral” communication that Schultze highlights, an enormous amount of content is transmitted non-verbally. A stern frown, a hand on a shoulder, a sly grin—these are the sorts of nuances to human communication that “speak” volumes.
On a broader scale, a live basketball game, a live concert, a live sermon all carry with them a power available only in the performance, and not in the digitized replication (as anyone who has been in the audience of a live sporting contest automatically understands). This power depends upon more than the words that are being communicated. It is a fusion of the physical presence of the performer or speaker—which is why public speakers use gestures to emphasize their points—and the response of the audience or listener.
In online and digital communication, however, this dynamic is lost. In concerts or sermons or plays, the exchange between the actor and the audience is unconscious, just as most of what individuals communicate when they gather together as friends is unconscious. There is no need to intentionally pursue this shared energy—it is present already. The transaction between audience and performer, speaker and listener exists by virtue of them being in the same space at the same time. If nothing else, their souls are in the same room, giving their communication an added dimension and power that they are not necessarily able to control.
But in online communication, the only “presence” someone is able to have is when they act intentionally in some way. There is no “presence by default.” A silent audience at a concert is still very “present,” just as Job’s friends still make their compassion known before they speak. But here online communication seems fundamentally deficient. The ability to effect change can only be gained through intentional, active communication—through writing comments or linking or posting a video response. We cannot simply be online and influence others, like we can be in a concert hall or with a friend and have influence.*
This fact, though, has several unsettling effects. For one, it increases the pressure to be activeonline. While this certainly has its benefits, it also potentially devalues our online production. If our online presence is measured by our production, then “publish or perish” becomes a reality.
To the extent that we exist online, we must contribute online. And the more time we spend online, the more difficult it becomes to separate this persona from our “real lives.” Such an externalized, activity-oriented understanding of our identity, however, is deeply problematic, if nothing else because it contributes to the dilution of power and reflectiveness identified in the section above.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.