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 facto self-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 the previous installment in this series, click here.


*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).

Taken from The New Media Frontier edited by John Mark Reynolds and Roger Overton, ©2008.  Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,www.crossway.org.  Download for personal use only.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

0 Comments

  1. As a friend of mine from an internet community once memorably said on a forum: “I’m much more confident online than I am in real life. That explains the little incident that you have mentioned. This is for one reason ONLY: I have access to a backspace key. Well, that and the fact that the people I am talking to online are over 1000 miles away and I have no clue what they all look like. As I always say to myself, ‘can’t hurt to try’.” It was also kind of funny how for the next few weeks after meeting him in real life, I automatically heard his voice whenever he said anything online.

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  2. A little late to the party here, but is “authenticity” limited, even when we are expressing ourselves with discretion? I’m not so sure. The problem, I believe, is transparency, and not authenticity. I’m working on this idea for an article, and I’m nearing completion. I think it is possible to be authentic online, but whether or not the projection of oneself meets with the reality of one’s being–authenticity–is not the problem. It is whether such discrepancies can ever be discovered. People cannot perceive where we are authentic and where we are not. Social media lacks the transparency to provide a fullness of perception, and thus the grounds for a truthful judgement of character.

    I’ve likened social media to an opaque piece of glass, revealing in parts, distorting in others. And if one is to be authentic online, one must be involved in a physical community that helps to craft one’s character, so that in those areas where online transparency shields us from the critiques and accountability of the online community, there are those that can refine us and help us to become more authentic.

    Make sense? Thoughts?

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