I’m in a season of discernment in my professional and personal life. It’s the kind of discernment that for various reasons is hard to talk about with lots of people because of the need for confidentiality as well as the desire to protect some sense of inner peace as I listen for the still voice of the Holy Spirit.
This morning a friend sent me a Facebook message. She is one of the few people who knows all of the details and with whom I’ve shared my own conflicts, doubts, and anxieties. She completely floored me. Her own interpretation of my feelings, motives, concerns, and deliberations was spot on. In her reflection back to me of my own doubts and hopes, she was that still voice of the Spirit, providing counsel, comfort, and encouragement.
But we haven’t seen in each other in person for almost two years. Our relationship is sustained mostly online, through Facebook, Twitter, and blogging. We don’t tend to write long, sustained emails about our personal lives, so most of our sense of one another is picked up from the different ways we self-present in digital space. If you had asked me for a list of folks who knew me best, she wouldn’t have even made the top five, and I’m fairly certain she’d say the same about me. Because we mostly know each other from our online identities, I would have said she knew a lot about me, but that she didn’t know me—in all my inner contradictions, foibles and graces—very well.
That’s probably because I often buy into the idea that there is some significant distinction between my real life and my digital life. The real me is the one you have to get to know through long rambling conversations over coffee or cocktails. The digital me is an assortment of glimpses I chose to offer, an idealized me, a “virtual” me. My friend’s message drove home to me just how tenuous that distinction really is. In the sustained engagement with the virtual glimpses of myself, my friend had discerned a very real picture of who I was—what made me tick at a very deep level. Whatever I was projecting into that virtual space was really me, and it was coming across loud and clear.
Theorists of social media have been saying something like this for a long time. B. Coleman’s new book Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation calls the experience I had with my friend “X-reality.” Rather than seeing computer-generated spaces, places, and worlds as “notably outside of what we might call real life,” X-reality describes “a mobile, real-time, and pervasively networked landscape.” In X-reality, we don’t leave our real lives to engage a shadow, virtual existence. In fact, the binary between virtual and real disappears as we move across sites that are real, simulated, digital, and embodied to various degrees. I don’t create a virtual me in digital space; I create a digital space to be me across the boundaries of time and space.
As my experience with my friend made clear, the collapsing of time and space by digital mediation created the opportunity for real human connection. Connection that was based on real human knowledge. It just so happens this knowledge was offered not in one-liners over the phone or meandering chats in a coffee shop but through status updates, Tweets, and blogs.
The still voice of the Spirit also crosses time and space and finds us in X-reality as well as any other reality we might know or come to know.
Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D candidate in religious studies, concentrating in theology, at Yale University.
The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.