Social Media and Our Identities

About two years ago, my then 14-year-old daughter shuffled into our living room and sat […]

About two years ago, my then 14-year-old daughter shuffled into our living room and sat down on the other end of the white couch where I was stationed. I was scrolling through Twitter to see what was going on with my Twitter friends and skimming the latest headlines. I looked up from my phone and noticed her expression of distress. Her face had that angsty look she got sometimes (well, a lot of times, because she was 15). I put my phone face-down on the metal bench that serves as our coffee table.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

“I feel overwhelmed. I don’t know who I am or who I’m supposed to be. I don’t know what I want to do after college. I don’t know what I want to study in college. I don’t know anything.”

“You are a brilliant, creative, witty girl who enjoys learning, hanging out with friends, and giggling at silly memes. You’re also thoughtful and self-reflective, which can cause you anxiety at times, but it is also a gift and will serve you and others well one day.” She listened to me, but my words did little to reassure her. She eventually got up and went back to her bedroom, and I wondered if I should have said something different.

I was convinced my daughter’s anxiety over her identity formation was at least partially tied to her use of Instagram and SnapChat. She was more thoughtful about her identity than I was at her age because she felt the tension between her online and offline identities. She had more to navigate while she tried to figure out who she was and who she wanted to be.

This makes me wonder how my identity is impacted by social media. If you and I were new friends and began to meet regularly for lunch or coffee, I would probably let you know pretty quickly—probably within two or three coffee dates—that one of my primary identities is that I’m a Christian. And I would let you know—also pretty quickly, but maybe not quite as quickly—that I believe Christians need a robust theology of grace. It’s super-important to me to know that God’s love for me is not based on my performance or my ability to get my act together. But when I post on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, I want attention, I want a reaction. I want someone (well, a lot of someones) to like or love my status. I want my followers to think I’m intelligent and thoughtful and worthy of their time and energy. I want followers to think my comments and posts and photographic evidence of my life tell the story of a life worth living.

What I want from social media goes against everything I say I believe about resting in God’s grace and in who God says I am, as a believer in Jesus. My primary identity on social media contradicts my primary identity offline. So which is the real me? They both are. We all have multiple identities that we put on and take off throughout each day based on various circumstances and roles and responsibilities. The fact that I can so easily fall into utter disregard of my theology of grace when I engage social media is proof that I can easily fall into utter disregard of the theology of grace anytime, regardless of the situation.

I asked my niece Haley Byrd, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist with a significant Twitter presence, if she ever feels a disconnect between who she is online and who she is offline. She responded:

As a reporter, most of my job revolves around Twitter. It’s the best, most efficient way for those in the industry to access the news, and it serves as an invaluable tool in sharing stories and promoting my work to an audience I have built over time. Because Twitter is so related to my job, I oftentimes find myself measuring my success in the amount of retweets, likes, or new followers my tweets accumulate. If a story falls flat on Twitter and doesn’t generate much buzz, it makes me feel less valuable than I do when my stories are shared by a lot of people. This standard of performance-based self-worth is counter to everything I know and believe as a follower of Christ, and I think it can be far too easy to forget the truth of mercy in such a fast-paced cutthroat environment. Twitter also lends to this mindset in other ways: Much of the online news cycle revolves around the question “Who are we mad at now?” These news cycles can form around the most shallow, infinitesimal mistakes that people make, or around earth-shaking revelations of nasty behavior from people in power. But in the midst of them, I find myself judging other people’s lives in simplistic measurements of works. I get caught up in the outrage machine of Twitter and sometimes contribute to it.

It would be easy to write here about how we need to get in touch with our true selves, our selves that aren’t contorted by the funhouse mirrors of social media. If we could better engage our true selves, we would know our real identities, right? But what would that look like? How do we know when our true selves have appeared? And if they happen to show their faces, how do we keep them from slipping away again?

But is engaging our true selves really the solution? If so, that sounds like a little-l law we need to keep. It sounds like it’s up to us to create environments where our true selves will appear and flourish. We need to close our computers, put down our phones, and get off social media to make sure we do what we need to do to be who we need to be. Unfortunately, I’ve tried that modus operandi. It never works out very well. I always end up frustrated with my lack of control to make things happen and to mold myself into the person I think I should be.

Maybe there’s another solution. Even when we can’t let go of our desire to achieve a certain image, and even when we can’t let go of our desire to manage our various identities–even then, God is still extending love to us. And God does it despite our inability to navigate social media with integrity or to know what or who our true selves even are.

So if you see me post something on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, please know it might not be words or ideas that originated from my true self. And that’s okay. My true self is around here somewhere.

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6 responses to “Social Media and Our Identities”

  1. Matt Ballance says:

    Oh man. That one hit real close to home. Thanks for this!

  2. Pierre says:

    I’m not sure that I agree there is such a thing as our “true self,” in contrast to a projected/fake/ersatz self that might appear in social media. I think that what we post on social media is just as much our “true self” as any other part of us. Maybe this is my Lutheran theology breaking in, the whole simul justus et peccator bit. It may not be a self we are particularly proud of, but it’s us nonetheless. Maybe it’s just that our online self is more often peccator than we’d like, so that’s why we try to dissociate it from our “real” self.

    The key difference to me is that social media platforms (within themselves) actually flatten our identities in a way that so-called real world interaction doesn’t. In person, we often present different sides of ourselves to different people. But on a digital platform, it’s much harder to do, and most people end up presenting a single face of themselves to everyone they are connected to, regardless of context. That, to me, is the real disconnect here. Not that our social media self is a “fake” self, per se, but that it’s deceptively singular and obscures our depth and complexity.

  3. Josh Retterer says:


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