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Do you have a blog?  Do you use Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media?  If so, did you know that you are a spokesperson?  You are responsible for stewarding a platform that has influence, whether or not your own voice seems significant to you.

So what are you about?  Who or what do you represent?

These are questions I wrestle with.  And I suspect that many others do, too.  But do those questions themselves seem presumptuous to you?  Self-absorbed?

There’s no question that the world of blogs and social media can lead to self-absorbed behavior, as people use Twitter or Facebook to promote their own accomplishments, or repeat others’ compliments of them (for everyone else to see).  In most Asian American and other cultural settings, it’s worse than a faux pas to put oneself before others like this… it’s shameful.  It’s self-promotion.  But when people do that, they aren’t trying to brag, or aren’t completely full of themselves… right?

To be honest, I don’t think we really know what to do with all of this. 

After all, the world has changed.  We can now write things online with the click of a button, that we would never have said before in person.  Or at least, in the past we had a few minutes to reconsider, as we saw the faces of the people we were addressing.

We live in an age of unprecedented sharing of information, where each of us can speak to hundreds and thousands of people from behind a computer.  And people are reading.

So what do we do?  Ignore social media, and all that’s happening there?  Never speak up and put ourselves out in public?  Close our eyes and semi-apologize, labeling everything we share as “shameless plugs?”  Or throw caution to the wind and inundate people relentlessly with our online presence?

As you can see, there’s a lot behind this, that is worth exploring.

Let me start with this.  Although I respect people who choose not to use it (and their reasons for doing so), I am absolutely a believer in social media, and it’s not just because it’s effective.  It’s a way that people relate and communicate with one another, like it or not.  It’s already shaping the next generation of leaders and organizations around the world.

I could put it even more strongly.  I think we have to shift from treating social media as “cool” or “modern”, to treating it as a matter of leadership.  I’ll try to elaborate.

This past summer, one of my coworkers gave a seminar called “Social Media 201,” where he discussed a number of cultural shifts in the way that people access information.  The first shift was to feeds.  For instance, Facebook and its stream of updates is a feed, as is a blog’s subscription feed… or even an e-mail.  It’s basically anything that gets information to people, so they know it’s there, and can read and engage it if they want.

The central insight behind the informational shift to feeds, was thatpeople aren’t looking for you anymore.  They simply won’t spend the time to type in the web address of your Facebook home page or blog, when there are hundreds of other sources of information that are being streamed to them.  So what to do?  You must find ways to seek out people, not wait for them to come to you. 

There’s a leadership and personal lesson there.  First, you can’t lead if you’re completely out of touch with the way others are communicating and connecting.  It’s not about whether you like technology, or feel adept at it or not.  If you want to share your experiences, or gather feedback or insights from others, you have to be where people are.  It’s that simple.

Second, here’s a personal lesson I’ve learned.  If you’re not willing to put yourself out in public, you lose all the positive things that can come through that, in addition to the negative.  For instance, my writing and work is part of my own growth in stewardship as an Asian American who wants to use my opportunities, education and skills to do something good for others, and in the world.  Can’t it be irresponsible (and self-absorbed, actually), to be so self-conscious to never use one’s voice for anything, even for good causes?

Let me just say, I’m an introvert and social media is not natural to me.  On many days of the week, I’d rather stay invisible, and certain times after I write an article or put myself out in the public eye, I feel like hiding under a rock.  But if I believe in what I’m writing about, is it a bad thing to share it with other people?

Sure, it would be great if other people could be constantly looking to share other peoples’ stuff, so we could all avoid the discomfort of self-consciousness and apparent self-promotion.  But that’s just not how the world works these days… people rely on feeds to know anything’s even out there.  Someone’s refusal to be public, while certainly a respectable choice (note: some people are not interested in that, and I do respect the spirit behind that), won’t necessarily be perceived as a matter of arrogance OR humility.  People just won’t know they’re there, period.

Okay, now is the time for a HUGE “BUT.”  BUT…

This is only half of the story!  Too many people stop here, and then feel they can share whatever they want, as much as they want.  This is where our conscience can be a helpful guide in discretion, so we’re stewarding our public platform and voice with humility and integrity.  There is a huge value to thoughtful restraint in online venues!

 Here are some questions I’ve found helpful for myself, in navigating these complex waters:

What is the focus of the content I’m sharing about?  Is it ultimately all about me, and what will help me?  Or does it point attention to other people and issues? 

This is one of the biggest questions, around which I see a lot of confusion.  Someone could write about nothing but their own life, passions, struggles and dreams on Facebook, Twitter, or on a blog.  And that could certainly reflect a fair level of self-absorption… no question about it.  Or that same person could be using those venues to bring attention to other people, causes or issues that are bigger than them, and so on.  But there’s a big difference between the two situations, although the same person is writing and sharing that content.  In other words, just because somebody shares their own content, doesn’t mean they are only trying to promote themselves, regardless of the focus of the content.  That would be a very cynical way of looking at things.  But I think there’s a healthy way to steward one’s voice, to point beyond oneself — to things that matter to other people.

This ties a little bit to a deeper question:

Who or what do I represent?  

It might seem like a strange or silly question, but think about it!  Because sometimes when we realize that we represent not just ourselves, but our family or organization or culture in certain contexts, our responsibility is to them as well.  So we may be called to put ourselves forward as spokespeople at certain times, when everything inside of us might be screaming, “I don’t want this!”  I’ve been in some situations where I knew that my actions to represent others would appear self-promoting, and I knew that nobody would understand my true motives.  And I had to be okay with being misunderstood.  In a strange twist on self-absorption, sometimes we have to lose our self-consciousness in order to put ourselves forward and do the right thing in those cases.But that doesn’t mean I’m not prone to the temptations of ego.  I definitely am!  In that light, here’s another question:

Do I feel like I’m entitled to a platform or voice, or is it a responsibility that sobers me?

Especially if we’re minorities or have felt like we haven’t had a voice for most of our lives, we can become intoxicated with the power we can have, once we start to use our voice.  If we’ve fought for the opportunity to speak or represent something, we can feel a sense of entitlement for our platform.  But we MUST NEVER let that happen!  As our voice or influence grows stronger, we must be:

– more (not less) aware of our own sinfulness and greed

– more (not less) willing to give away any power we might have, in empowering others, and

– more (not less) proactive in being interested in other people, rather than ourselves only

That’s because it will only get harder.  If we’re drawing people to ourselves, or find that people are coming to us, we better be taking EXTRA care for who we are, and what we represent.  Influence is something to steward, and it will test us to the core of our integrity.  It should.  Are you thinking about that?  Are you ready?  Because as I said before, you have a platform and a voice to steward (especially if you’re a leader), whether you know it or not!

Am I wrestling with what it means to be a spokesperson, or to have a platform?  Am I seeking help and prayer?

To some degree, I think it’s healthy to always wrestle a bit with these issues.  From what I’ve seen of others, it’s usually not good to become too comfortable.  One thing we can always do, is to ask for help and prayer.  I believe God will honor that.

How freely do I give, in addition to receiving?  Am I willing to serve and platform, as much as I enjoy being platformed by others?

On a practical level, I fight against self-absorption by trying to maintain a healthy balance between how much I focus on myself, and how much I focus on others online.  That means reading and commenting on other people’s blogs as much as I do on my own.  Or working to platform somebody else’s work as much as my own projects.  Also, it’s helped for me to collaborate: half of the talks I’ve given, and major articles I’ve written have been with other people.  This is actually an intentional value that author Henri Nouwen applies in his book In the Name of Jesus — for ministers to speak in pairs, rather than alone when in front of an audience — to avoid the pitfalls of a “temptation to be spectacular.”  What a great way to counteract self-absorption!

So to conclude, it’s not simple to navigate the ethics of self, in an ever-changing world.  And self-absorption is a subtle and tempting foe, that can lure us from different angles.  We can mistake it for false humility, a boldness that stems from entitlement and ego, or other manifestations.  But through it all, we’ll be headed in the right direction, as long as we’re wrestling with these questions, and don’t minimize the power each of us has.  Because we all have a platform, so it’s not a matter of whether or not we have a voice.  It’s a matter of what we choose to do with it.

So what do you think?  How do you navigate these issues?  What do you struggle with online?  What have you found that helps you? 

What do you think gets mistakenly labeled as self-promotion?  And what kind of self-absorbed behavior doesn’t get called out enough?    

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