Virtual Communities and Identities of Anonymity…in the Church

One of the outgrowths of digital culture combined with postmodernism is a new and different type of pseudonym usage, and it is prevalent in some of the most unexpected places, including within the church. You may have seen it leading up to the next LCMS Convention and will likely see more of it as well. While the use of pen names goes far back in history and for varied reasons, today, digital culture has taken on a largely new and different purpose. I say this even as I see affordances and limitations, and even as I see and celebrate virtuous usage cases.

Seeing how prevalent it has become within online writing and dialogue among Christians is intriguing. This appears to include some Christians who, under the guise of a pen name, feel emboldened to proclaim their convictions without the anchor of the Ten Commandments, for example. Breaking of any or all commandments in the pursuit of their noble cause is sometimes justified. It can be, at times, the proclamation of conviction without character or courage.

After all, it is not them, it is their “avatar.” Does God’s Word apply when you are wearing a digital costume or hiding behind the anonymity of a pen name?

In the past, as an ethnographic and Internet culture researcher, I used creative methods to study people hiding behind anonymity: online religious cults and communities, hacker collectives, secret societies experimenting with online spaces for recruitment and other purposes, etc. Then, about ten years ago, when I was doing a study of people who regularly cheat online (academic cheating, not the other kind), I started to see these same hacker, pen name, and avatar strategies emerging in the church, even in things like The United List. I used some of the same methods (I’m not inclined to share detailed methods but suffice it to say that you would be amazed how much some crave to tell their secrets…confidentially) from my past studies of hacker collectives and the like to surface candid but confidential responses and data from people in such Christian groups, getting a glimpse behind the veil of such efforts and experiments. It was enlightening. I remained intrigued by the moral reasoning used by people who have increasingly immersed themselves in such contexts, even as I’m inspired by the principled approach that others strive to maintain as they venture into virtual communities and identities of anonymity.

We live in interesting times.