Google+, Circles, Authentic Community and Edited Selves
With what seems to me like more shock value than real substance Google released its competition to Facebook at the end of June. Google+ is still in beta-testing and, like Facebook, will see a lot of changes before its full value is known. However I’m struck by an intriguing ethical question as I learn its ins and outs. Its main advertised appeal at this point seems to be the circle concept. Friends aren’t just friends, they say. In real life we have circles of friends that don’t necessarily mix and meet. So why should our online presence be forced to one pool of friends? We should be able to share certain things with only certain people? (Click here for more on Circles and Google+)
I understand the allure of such a structure. An entire genre of comedy exists making fun of the consequence of saying the wrong things in a single social network where family and work may learn compromising things about you. It doesn’t even have to be that nefarious. As a pastor I have had my fair share of dilemmas as congregation members, college friends, family, and even social network friends I’ve never met in real life have mixed. Political agendas outted, poor choices spoken about, less-than-child friendly links shared – these and more are the challenges that created the great desire for a system of networks just like Google’s circles. From the standpoint of meeting customers desires, it strikes me that Google just leap-frogged Facebook (for the time being, and conceptionally at least). But is it good?
I realize that questions about the common good have gone out of style, but I also knew a long time ago that I’m always at least ten years behind the style of the day. I think there are issues to be learned and worked out with circles. A learning curve exists with them just as with one single network. But I’m not debating Google’s execution or the practicality of compartmentalized social networks. What I’m wondering from my own theological and philosophical standpoint is the ethics of assisting the further fragmentation of our lives. Circles perpetuate a natural desire to live differently among different people. We get to be our ideal selves (maybe) with family and work and church and, depending on your particularities, our neighbors. And, we get to let it all hang loose with friends and strangers. We can act and think and talk almost as two (three or four or however many suits us) different people. We don’t even have to do the work, the self examination, to figure out who is our whole self and what are simply edited versions of who we are that we maintain to avoid conflict and keep our options open. We can be Christians on Sundays, capitalists by weekday, nurturing loved ones by weeknight, and cosmopolitan socialites on Friday night and Saturday. (Yes a fair amount of dramatic exaggeration is evident in that last line but I wonder where fiction and fact merge.)
It may be like real life to maintain circles. It may even be authentic in a way that perpetuates our broken and divided selves that we live as, maintaining different masks with different people. But as one who has long been fond of the work of Parker Palmer in nurturing a whole and undivided self, I wonder if while desirable the circle construction is just one more way of enabling our own unhealthiness. As one who is invested in recovering a fruitful understanding of discipleship I am concerned with any system of structuring life that is premised on non-disclosure of self. (This is not about creating healthy boundaries and keeping confidentiality – these are important. This is about hiding who we are for the sake of acceptance and accommodation often great mental and emotional cost to ourselves.)
Am I being unfair to Google+ and the circle concept? Probably… consider it a foil for a larger question. What is community? What does it mean to seek authentic community where we do not have to edit who we are, and invest undue energy in keeping the unacceptable parts of ourselves hidden? What would it mean for all our circles to be the same kind of authentic community where we could fully share ourselves?
I’ll leave you with someone who says it better than I ever could: “Community is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, the flowing of a personal identity and integrity into the world of relationships… to teach (I would add, “to live”) is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.” (The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer, p. 90)