Beyond Image Control

Why keeping up appearancesÑonline and in churchÑwonÕt get us where we think it will.

BY TIM CHERMAK GOD / FAITH February 01, 2013

Have you ever wondered if other people spend as much time perfecting their online profile as you do?

It’s nothing more than wishful thinking if we assume that others don’t evaluate us by perusing our virtual biographies, if only for a few seconds. These few seconds can tell us alot about someone—their physical appearance, musical interests, favorite books, political leanings, religious preferences, and in increasingly rare cases, their aptitude of important life skills such as Mafia Wars and Farmville progression.

We subconsciously realize when we are the evaluators, someone’s social standing can be created or destroyed within seconds. Marketing psychologists have proven that within the first seven seconds of entering a restaurant, store or church, a customer will have made up their mind if it is worth coming back to.

The time allotted for web profiles? Usually around 2-3 seconds. And in these first crucial seconds, in the midst of overwhelming text and white space, images are the magnets that attract our curious eyes. When was the last time you saw a profile photo that made one look fat, ugly or stupid? Instead, judging from the average online profile picture, most people:

* Are happy all the time

* Smile uncontrollably with reckless abandon

* Hang out with social superiors

* Have a strange obsession with taking pictures of personal reflections in mirrors

* Secretly desire a career in modeling

It’s a shame that we judge others by their online presence (or lack thereof). Whether we assign positive or negative statuses to people, purely electronic judgments cannot take the place of tangible, participatory human interaction.

There are many people whose online presence on social networking sites dictates an entirely different story from the narrative in which they actually live. Whether it deflates or inflates their reputation, an online profile can no more be used to judge a person than a billboard be used to judge a restaurant.

The idea of controlling brand images is nothing new. We see it in the business sector all the time—and it has subsequently made its way into the world of faith. It’s a troubling exercise to imaginatively list all the things we can’t say in church, beyond obviously impure four-letter words like "beer," and the occasional jab at our political affiliation. Things like admitting our brokenness, questioning spiritual authority, preaching certain passages and messages: this is dangerous stuff, and has no place in the house of God—at least according to recent tradition.

Following closely behind social networking (or perhaps in the inverse order), the Church has become a place of artificial, superficial, mostly perfect people. Nobody has affairs anymore, that we know of, nobody is going through depression, that we know of, nobody is struggling with a chemical addiction, that we know of, and nobody struggles with their faith—that we know of.

Is there any other reason to explain why we feel compelled to dress up every Sunday morning?

Has anyone ever felt the tension that arises when the family is yelling at each other in the car, but as soon as the shined shoes hit the fresh pavement of the church parking lot, a picture of relational perfection is put on display for the rest of us?

This isn’t a call to "be who you are," as if we could be anything different. There have been countless lame movies and books that have already perfected that doctrine.

Here’s what I’m getting at: Online networking, school, work, church—they all provide canvases to paint portraits of ourselves that are inaccurate. Most of us gladly take advantage of this opportunity, because if we’re honest, we feel our real lives are too mundane to publicize.

In the creative world, the only work that cannot be criticized is an autobiography. Unless it’s a lie.

Yet if we stopped investing so much energy in perfecting and presenting our image, I wonder if we’d start worrying less—and living more. The truth is, by making ourselves more “likeable,” we also make ourselves less relatable—robbing ourselves of the opportunity to see each other for who we are, with all our struggles and imperfections, and say together, “Oh, you too?”

TIM CHERMAK

Tim Chermak is a writer especially interested in asking the hard questions of faith and ecclesiology. He is currently working on a degree in Social Philosophy at Calvin College.

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