What does it really mean to be “somebody”? Is it like Marlon Brando’s famous line in the film “On the Waterfront”? “I coulda’ been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum.”
There is something powerful about being known, celebrated and revered. And there is something painful about being ignored, criticized and humiliated. The internet offers us both alternatives, but both are misleading.
Our dignity is not digitally derived. It comes from God. It comes from being made in the image and likeness of God.
What we often see today is a belief that projecting an image and likeness of the self onto a screen and joining the ranks of celebrities or “influencers” is what makes a self a “somebody.”
In surveys of school-aged children asking them what they want to be when they grow up, the No. 1 answer is YouTube star.
The late David Foster Wallace tells the story of an amnesiac who is convinced that he is Mary Richards from the 1970s series “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” After consulting with a psychiatrist, the amnesiac eventually admits that he knows he’s not Mary Richards, but he still doesn’t know who he is. Lacking an identity, he decided to borrow one from TV.
As Wallace tells it, “He’s lonely. He watches a lot of television. He figured it was better to believe (he) was a TV character than not to believe (he) was anybody.”
Something similar is happening in the digital age. It is often wryly said that if it didn’t happen online, it didn’t happen. Hence the compulsive photography of parents capturing special moments with children or people cataloguing their travels and experiences, no matter how mundane.
The implicit message is that this practice of documenting and sharing nearly everything is part of what it means to be somebody in the digital age, to be visible online.
In the TV era, it was shows and ads that presented role models to imitate and criticize. Today, the people on YouTube and TikTok are both consumer and producer, viewer and advertiser, audience and celebrity.
The TV paradigm has collapsed in on itself. YouTube “stars” are not world-class athletes or actors or musicians. They are “regular” people with an internet connection. And they are keenly aware of the presence of the camera because they are usually holding it in their hands and aiming it at their face.
In both media eras, television and digital, the deep-seated human desire to be known and loved is consistent. Among the many challenges and opportunities that digital media technology presents to the church, the impact on human dignity stands out.
As the catechism states, “Endowed with ‘a spiritual and immortal’ soul, the human person is ‘the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake.’ From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude” (No. 1703).
Willed for its own sake! Our dignity comes from the fact that God has created us and we have a soul that is cherished by him. The fact that young people seek YouTube stardom so passionately should be a wake-up call to the church.
It is a sign of a disordered sense of dignity. Like the TV amnesiac, they have forgotten who they are, where they came from and where they are going.
Rather than becoming a “character” in the online drama of social media, it may be time to step back and reassess the internet on its own terms, not on television’s terms. The celebrity and fantasy era is ending.
The gift of the internet is its expansive memory capabilities and the ability to share human information and knowledge in new ways. It was St. Augustine who famously reviewed the record of his life and reassessed it in the light of Christian truth. The result, “Confessions,” is a map for recovering one’s identity after a long period of forgetting.
Tonight, before you throw another photo or opinion into the online trough, look backward. Go to the beginning of your camera roll or the very bottom of your Facebook posts and look for the story that connects it all.
Turn it into a conversation with God. Fill it with all the gratitude, joy and regret that your memory and conscience will allow.
What you might find in the end is you.
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Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.