There is a deeper problem, however, with communicating online.
It is crucial in communication—whether in person or online—to be as authentic as possible. As new media are communally oriented, authenticity and honesty take on an added importance. But online communication places us in charge of our own self-presentation. Even when we act “authentically” online, we act at our own discretion.
In interpersonal communication, however, controlling our self-presentation is much more difficult, if not impossible. The astute and familiar observer can hear the subtle differences in tone that indicate contentment or anxiety, peace, or frustration, just as the astute observer can see subtle differences in the face that betray the truth about a person’s real state of mind (even if that truth is unknown to the person speaking).*
In other words, in interpersonal communication, we communicate more than we consciously intend. There is a de factoself-revelation that comes from our body giving away our internal states, as very few of us have the ability to hide ourselves as well as we think. Lack of ability, however, doesn’t prevent most of us from trying to control when and how we disclose our selves to the world, when and how we are “authentic.”
This idea, though, that we can selectively self-disclose and control our own “authenticity” is the sort of problematic value that the new media reinforces. “Authenticity,” on this understanding, becomes easy, as we get to tell others our sins and secrets in such a way that feels safe to us. There is an inevitable sanitization that occurs when we decide what to tell others. This level of control over our revelations can even give us a sense of self-gratification for our “realness.” The end result is a narcissistic hyper-self-awareness, as we decide when we want to “be authentic” and disclose ourselves and when we don’t.
When people are gathered together, authenticity happens whether we like it or not. Our very attempts to act in accordance with others’ expectations reveals more about our own internal state than we might care to admit. The adage that 90 percent of communication is non-verbal is true, and in reducing human communication to that last 10 percent, new media runs the risk of improperly shaping how we view communication in the rest of our lives.
*For instance, consider Paul Ekman’s “Facial Action Coding System.” For details, see his
Emotions Revealed, Second Edition: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. (Owl Books: New York, 2007).
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.