the undivided life: social media, authenticity, vulnerability

the undivided life: social media, authenticity, vulnerability

this post has been a long time simmering. those who know me can attest to my [mostly useful, i hope] presence online. ever since i began exploring digital and social media as a tool for community building and community and spiritual formation, i’ve set up shop on facebook, twitter and this blog, trying to live as authentically as i can so that those spaces mirror who i am in real life. our persona in social spaces, after all, is still real life, as meredith gould, founder of #chsocm would likely prod. 

there’s a fine line to walk between oversharing that needs to be called out as TMI [too much information] and the invitation to get to know one based on articles posted, status updates and photos shared. we know that line to toe very well. some do, anyway. so why write this post now?

a few reasons.

as some of you may know or have guessed, i’m now living in nashville, tn. about a week and a half ago i packed it all up, with the help of my family, and headed [south] east to begin a job with the united methodist church’s communication agency as minister of online engagement. take a stab at what i’ll be doing. when you’re tired of guessing, you can read the description here. as i transition from working at the local church level to the denominational agency level, i’ve taken a few moments to pause and think about how i use these online spaces and to ask the infamous so what? question. i’ve also had some conversations this week about our varied uses of social media and whether or not we are really who we say we we are online and off, and whether communities on facebook and twitter do offer not just a proxy but a true community in which we participate.

so what’s the big deal? 
now for some who use social media, there’s the immediate response, what’s the big deal? it’s just facebook [or twitter or insert your social channel here]. but it’s more nuanced than that for me. i get chided by my family for being in these spaces too much. for revealing too much. for appearing not to have boundaries. but this is my attempt to share all of me with all of you. to invite you in. to say, pull up a chair and a glass and chat a while. for me, sharing these urbane and mundane and ridiculous moments in my life are an invitation to connect, not a show i’m putting on for you to enjoy. [i can assure you that you’ll get the same from me if we talk on the phone, in person or text.]

so what really breaks my heart [i’m not saying that lightly] is when we don’t see our online relationships for the real and authentic that they are and can be. after all, it’s easy to separate ourselves from these spaces when we don’t have personal contact and interaction. i saw the gruesome ways that people tweeted over one another at #GC2012 and #GA220 [our UMC and PC(USA) gatherings, respectively] and said things they would dare not say to one another if they were seated at a table sharing a meal together. snark is like a gremlin on twitter and facebook. it doesn’t need much for it to grow to monstrous proportions. so there’s that.

there’s also a part of me that breaks when we see these social spaces as places to put the spotlight on us. to promote our political or religious agendas, to incite damage, to stroke our egos or to say hey, like my blog and i’ll tell you how to be successful and get thousands of followers without regard for relationships and meaningful connection. i suppose for some, that’s authentic. if you’re concerned with getting ahead in life in these ways, you’re probably the same in person as you are online. social media just makes it easier and your reach wider. please note that i’m not telling you how to use social media–i’m merely reflecting on issues that arise as i interact in these spaces.

then there’s a part of me that wells up with joy as i find meaningful and authentic interactions online. conversations about a better church and a better world. about partnerships across culture and religious affiliation and geographic space. about music and food and travel and politics and sustainability and access. about aaron sorkin’s new show, the newsroom. [really, that show and the ensuing conversations do bring me joy]. it was on twitter, after all, that the #dreamUMC and #dreamPCUSA movements were born out of a desire to rise above the lines we’ve drawn in the sand. this is the space i want to occupy.

as a person of faith, this is the thin space that allows me to meet the Holy and neighbor in a different way.

but social media also has ways of drawing you in too quickly–more quickly that you’re ready. for good or bad, relationships on twitter or facebook cut the getting-to-know-you song and dance in half. at least from my experience. this is where the vulnerability piece comes in. and for some, the convenience of floating in and out of that relationship, no strings attached, is a godsend. you become friends and invite people into your circles with a mere click of the follow or friend button. and when you’re done, you simply click unfriend or unfollow, delete a tweet or a status update and choose not to reply and it’s like nothing ever existed. for some introverts or people who don’t like confrontation, this is a fabulous way to be with no explanation needed.

not so easy, i say. the relationships you build online seem to offer a different degree of emotional investment and require a level of vulnerability that’s uncomfortable. on top of this, you don’t have the verbal and non verbal cues to communicate or receive your message. and sometimes even a smiley face can’t make what you’ve typed all better. tone is lost or added, additional meaning removed or placed on your 140 character tweet. social media has offered a place where the things we might only say in private, more intimate conversations, are let loose to see who happens to latch on to or refute what we have to say. online spaces, for some, have become forums where one can cast out thoughts to see what soil they land on and take root.

they become places where we can choose to let words and ideas take hold and grow or places where noxious weeds of slander and snark take over. they become places where we are not accountable to anyone. not even ourselves.

so what’s the point of all of this rambling? 
i’ve come to the conclusion that until we see the communities we’ve formed on social media just as real as our communities in real life, we’ll continue living lives divided, sharing only a part of ourselves because we know that we can hide behind our screens and smart phones and tune in and out at will or peace out when things get too close for comfort.

that’s not the life i choose to live. what about you?