Conducting an online life as if you are always “auditioning” is one of the main dangers to mental health in today’s digital world.

When Dr. Deborah MacNamara gave her talk “Kids in a Digital World” at the Archdiocese’s ONE Conference Feb. 10 at the Chandos Pattison Auditorium, she spoke of many ways families can be strengthened in order to help kids flourish.

But it was that one word in her talk – “auditioning” – that summed up for me the pressure being placed on human beings today. It is an apt description for how social media elicits a definite style of behaviour, at least whenever people are not being mindful about their use of the technology.

“The global village” is the well-known name given by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan to our new technological reality. What he meant was that the small town dynamic of  “everybody knows everybody else’s business” has been extended, with electrically enabled technologies, to exist on a global scale.

Later on, he used an even more suggestive formulation: “the global theatre.” Unlike “the global village,” it didn’t become a well-known phrase. But it better captures the essence of what humanity’s latest technologies have unleashed: namely, an imperative for everybody to perform for everyone else.

McLuhan’s insight was into how the Internet would call forth behaviours of an essentially “performative” nature. 

McLuhan’s insight was into how the Internet would call forth behaviours of an essentially “performative” nature. Until I heard Dr. MacNamara speak, I had always thought of our digital world – “the global theatre” – to be best characterized in terms of that highly specific word: “performative.”

But as Dr. MacNamara kept using the word “auditioning,” I became convinced it was an even more apt description for the way social media now conditions people, especially young people, to behave.

A veteran actor is capable of performing with a more practised skill set than a talented novice. We consider them both performers, and then distinguish between the two, based on whatever quality of performances they may deliver.

McLuhan saw that our digital technologies would erase the boundary between the audience and the actors. Everybody would now be performing on the global stage, and judging everybody else at light speed.

Yet what I like about the term “auditioning” is how it better captures the highly precarious nature of the planet’s new “performative” reality. Now nobody has a secure acting gig anymore, thanks to the fickle nature of digital fame.

Only a few celebrities can garner “viral” status – for a time. 

Only a few celebrities can garner “viral” status – for a time. Then they too will find their accelerated expiry date, rushing toward them in the online digital maelstrom.

Meanwhile, in this new climate, the average user of the digital technologies finds their feelings of insecurity and inadequacy heightened. They are not so much already “performing” for a global audience out there, as much as they are “auditioning” for any rewarding role on the global stage.

A feedback loop begins with the acquisition of attention from others, via the instant gratification – or instant dissatisfaction – of social media’s rewards systems. It then closes back in on itself, as the user remains trapped within the loop of “auditioning” for even more attention, because the last attempt either felt so good – or so bad.

Either way, the digital experience is an amplification of unhealthy extremes. Yet it does not have to be an unhealthy experience. If users can escape the loop, they can repurpose the tool.

Technology can be used instead as an accessory for enabling face-to-face human connections in the real world. After all, empathy cannot be fostered by a risk-free “hiding behind a screen” mentality. Instead of “auditioning” for highly artificial online satisfactions, our tools should be used in a more human way.

Digital “auditioning” conditions us to think exclusively with an excessively critical and harshly judgmental mindset. 

Digital “auditioning” conditions us to think exclusively with an excessively critical and harshly judgmental mindset. That mindset only cares about one thing: “Are you not entertained?”

When Russell Crowe’s character utters those words in that famous scene from the Ridley Scott film Gladiator, he exhibits consciousness of what Romans wanted most from their favourite form of theatre.

But he was also criticizing the stupidity of the whole gladiatorial enterprise, which he eventually subverted from within. He used the arena for his own purposes, to strike back against the unjust and exploitative cultural system that sought to make him its prisoner.

A more prayerful, meditative mindset would not pursue the “default settings” of today’s most addictive technologies. Instead, it could choose to jam the digital world by tilting it to better serve humanity, which is a strategy now being used by many of us.