Back in the early days of word processing software, user interfaces were often rudimentary and relied on the editor including symbols and code to set the layout of the text. What appeared on the screen was nothing like what emerged from the printer. As the software progressed, new graphical interfaces were created that showed the final layout of the document on the screen. These were marketed as ‘WYSIWYG’ (what you see is what you get) editors, which we now take for granted. WYSIWYG reflected the frustration and inconvenience of seeing one thing on the screen, but quite another in real life.
The always-on mentality raises the key question of who you are interacting with online. Because, just like early text-based editing software, what people show you online is not what you get in real life.
Who are you, really? Self-censorship is perfectly normal, of course. We choose what we reveal about ourselves to people, generally putting our best side forward until we know someone better. But online it’s far easier to be selective, crafting a persona constructed from the best profile, images and comments we can come up with.
It’s inevitable that you’ll only get an edited version of someone online – there just isn’t the ‘bandwidth’ on the web to know someone like you would in real life. But the risk is that at some point, we can cross the line from editing to lying. In the worst cases, the anonymity of the web can mean we’re communicating with someone who is completely different from who they’re presenting to us.
Interestingly, the Bible isn’t too concerned about anonymity per se. There are plenty of instances where someone’s identity remains hidden for good reason, at least temporarily – notably Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Instead, God seems to be more interested in our integrity. Saul disguises himself to visit the Witch of Endor, which unsurprisingly doesn’t work out too well for him.
This suggests that although it’s natural to limit the information we post on the web, we should be careful to maintain integrity: are we the same person online as we are offline? How do we act on the internet? The anonymity of the web can bring out behaviour that people wouldn’t engage in face-to-face – as the cases of several trolls who have been publicly outed have shown. When we think that no one knows who we are, do we really act as if God sees us?
It can be easy to think we can compartmentalise online and offline life, but it’s not so neat and simple in practice. People assume that how we think and how we act are independent. But it’s a two-way process: how we act also influences how we see the world – a core principle of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT. Act a certain way and it impacts your character: you become your actions and habits.
Most of us don’t go around constructing fake identities on the web. And it’s absolutely appropriate to limit the information we put out there. It’s just that it’s so easy to cross the line and be someone else online, deliberately or involuntarily. Our identities, who we trust and what we ask others to trust, have practical and spiritual implications.
1. Get to know people, not profiles.
Recognise that people tailor their personality and behaviour online. This almost certainly includes you, too, even if they don’t overtly lie about who they are. The instant-access culture of the web can make us impatient, but it takes time to get to know someone properly. Recognise too that the ‘thinner’ relationships we have online mean that we can miss vital context that we might take for granted in real life.
2. Be WYSIWYG.
There may be a good case for disclosing only very selective details about yourself online; the nature of social networking and the web can mean that you lack control over who has access to the information you post – and once you post something online it may never go away. In many instances you may not want to give your real name or other details. However, there is still the question of character and integrity: how do you act online? Do you value and display the same qualities that you do in other contexts? Does the behaviour of your online profiles reflect the belief that God sees everything?
3. Entertain an angel.
Who are you when no one else is looking? Remember that actions are habit-forming and character-forming, and that your online personality can’t neatly be compartmentalised from the rest of life. Remember too that those with whom you interact online are real people, even if the nature of the web means it’s easy to forget that. How we treat people when there are no apparent consequences for us is highly telling about us. As the writer of Hebrews remarks: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
Digitally Remastered is available from Christian bookshops and www.muddypearl.com, priced £9.99.