Facebook and the False Self

Part 3 of our Lenten reflections on technology and spirituality.

I think it’s time for Christians to give up giving Facebook up for Lent.

While I realize that the intention behind giving up Facebook–or any other digital social network–for Lent is good, I think that just deactivating or uninstalling Facebook for 40 days can be too facile of a way to approach social media. Yes, going cold turkey is a big sacrifice for many people. And yes, we should treat that itch to check social media as a call to prayer. But I think the cold turkey for Lent approach can go wrong in two ways.

The first way the cold turkey approach can go wrong is that we might turn it into a productivity hack and not treat it as a sacrifice. I wrote about this a little last week. We need to remember that Lent isn’t a time to extend ourselves but a time to deny ourselves. We deny ourselves of good things as a sacrifice–not give up bad habits that we shouldn’t have in the first place.

The second way the cold turkey approach can go wrong is that it can actually keep us from really examining ourselves and how we use social media. What I mean is that just giving it up treats our use of social media as if it should be either on or off instead of getting us to think about how we use social media and how social media affect how we view ourselves.

Facebook and other social media are powerful media of self-curation. We can carefully post the images, thoughts, ideas, stories, and videos that best represent the life we want others to think we have. We might even trick ourselves into thinking that our life is better if it looks amazing on Facebook. But in reality, the high-level of self-curation that Facebook empowers us to do can actually make us sadder. Studies show that when we passively scroll through Facebook content, gazing on our friends’ lives as we thumb through our news feed, we can become envious and feel more lonely.

This is the phenomenon that I think quitting Facebook cold turkey doesn’t really address, because it’s ultimately not a problem with Facebook, but a problem with our sense of identity. What we really need to face is our false self, the self that Thomas Merton defined “the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him.” In real life and on Facebook we build up ourselves–our egos–to be exactly the person that other people will like or respect or even envy. Often times we want to have a cool, fun life not just for the pure enjoyment of such a life, but so that other people will wish they had our life.

That false person or false life is an illusion, but on Facebook it can be a powerful illusion. Thomas Merton, writing about this false self, said “we are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves,” but that a life devoted to our illusions is what we would normally call a life of sin. I think for many of us, Facebook feeds the illusion we have of ourselves. We spend a lot of time (or at least I do) thinking about the perfect way to word our newest status update or the perfect Instagram filter to color our vacation photos with or the perfect cynical thing to say about the latest news story. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to present ourselves. But what we are thinking about is how to build up our false self. To quote Merton again:

“I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

“But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.”

Now to be sure, Merton wasn’t talking about Facebook. But doesn’t this sum up a lot of what we do on Facebook? We wrap videos and statuses and friends and pictures of parties around our profile to make it perceptible to the world, to feel like we exist. And it only makes us sadder.

Instead of giving up Facebook cold turkey, Facebook is actually one of the best ways to see your false self in action. Here’s a new spiritual practice I think all Christians could benefit from: When you go to post something on Facebook this Lent–or any time at all–use that time as an opportunity to examine why you are posting that thing. What is your motivation? What do you hope people will think about you? What message are you sending about your self? Look back at your profile and try to discern the story you are trying to tell the world about yourself.

When we begin to answer these questions, I think we will get a clearer glimpse into the roots of our false self. We can confront our pride and our envy for what they are. And we’ll change our use of Facebook from a tool of self-curation into a tool of self-examination.

facebook and the false self

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About the Contributor

Benjamin Robertson

Benjamin Robertson
Benjamin Robertson is a founding editor at Second Nature. He has worked in advertising for the Chicago Tribune and Gannett, and now is a web developer at Up&Up. He studied Communications and Media Studies under Dr. Read Schuchardt at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has presented papers on Marshall McLuhan, media ecology, and Christianity at the Media Ecology Association, National Communication Association, and the McLuhan's Philosophy of Media Centennial Conference in Brussels. He lives with his wife, Ruth, in Greenville, SC. His personal website is benjamingrobertson.com

Comments

  1. Hey, that’s a great article!

  2. Spot on. Lovely use of Merton, who understood media very well…

    • Benjamin Robertson says:

      Thanks Howard. I’m currently reading Illusions of Freedom:
      Thomas Merton and Jacques Ellul on Technology and the Human Condition which does an excellent job of putting Ellul and Merton in conversation with each other on the topics of media and technology. I plan on reviewing here as well.

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