In a recent newsletter, Gurwinder Bhogal shares the story of Nicholas Perry, a violin-playing vegan who aspired to become YouTube famous. After a year of failed attempts, he left behind his violin and veganism and tried a new strategy: recording himself eating meals while holding a conversation with a camera. Nikocado Avocado (his YouTube handle) was a digital lunch buddy for the lonely.
These new videos got traction, and Nikocado’s digital dinner mates began to ask him to try more expansive fare. The bigger the meals, the bigger the view count. Before Nikocado knew it, he was recording himself devouring entire McDonald’s menus in a single video.
Eventually, his audience grew to 6 million subscribers, but that wasn’t the only thing to expand.
The transformation was complete. A soft-spoken, thin-framed vegan named Nicholas Perry had evolved into Nikocado, a brash, dangerously overweight, dauntless devourer of calories who requires breathing apparatus. Bhogal writes, “The rampant appetite for attention caused the person [Nicholas Perry] to be subsumed by the persona [Nikocado].”
Nikocado’s tragic story illustrates a problem too rarely considered by Christians in today’s online media landscape: audience capture—when someone begins to mirror her audience’s demands, posture, beliefs, and interests. Audience capture is a Faustian trade: fame for personhood, celebrity for integrity, and public attention for public decency.
When Persona Replaces Person
The Nikocados of Christian discourse are a bit more challenging to spot. Their transformations are more psychological (posture and rhetoric) than physical (waistlines).
A few years ago, a relatively unknown pastor began writing about cultural issues on Twitter. He was typically irenic, nonanxious, and nuanced, avoiding extreme rhetoric. But in April of last year, he wrote a long thread challenging the inclusion of radical gender ideology in public education. His follower count began to rapidly tick up.
Audience capture is a Faustian trade: fame for personhood, celebrity for integrity, and public attention for public decency.
His new followers didn’t share his peaceful posture. They were culture warriors who rewarded—with likes and retweets—only his most bombastic posts. So he began to give them more of what they wanted. Over the next three months, his follower count doubled, culminating in an invite to speak on trans education on a Christian TV network, where he stoked fear and cast aspersions on his enemies with muscular rhetoric.
In a period of months, his followers transformed him from winsome to one of the fastest-growing antiwinsome personalities on the social internet. The transformation was complete. The persona devoured the person.
If you asked him, “Why did you change so dramatically?” I doubt he would say, “I do anything it takes for more followers!” Instead, he’d probably say, “I’m just trying to help people.” He probably sees his transformation as an act of honesty, and authenticity, not a bald grab for attention. The truth, of course, is more complex: virtuous desires intermingle with less salubrious aims, and anyone growing an audience will keep virtue in their conscious foreground, relegating desires for celebrity to the subconscious. It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to see from the outside, but (apart from self-reflection and accountability) almost impossible to see from the inside.
How Social Media Creates Christian Nikocados
Social media has revolutionized the feedback loop. Before Facebook, Nielsen ratings and focus groups were the best way for a media personality to gauge audience feedback. In the social media era, four things changed:
- The threshold for notoriety decreased. In former media eras, a national audience of 2,000 would have been nothing. In niche social media subcultures, a follower count exceeding 2,000 constitutes a bona fide platform, putting you in the top 2–12 percent of social media users. But this is the important part: users with over 2,000 followers receive enough engagement to be affected by it.
- Celebrity became achievable. Gatekeepers—like publishers, conference organizers, newspaper editors, and radio and TV producers—once kept most aspiring celebrities outside the gates. But today there are no gatekeepers (aside from AI running social media platforms). Now, fame feels accessible for everyone. This heightens the temptation to mirror audiences for plaudits, feeding the narcissistic shadow self. If I do what they like, I get more followers, and if I get more followers, I get more notoriety, and if I get more notoriety, I feel better about myself.
- Audience feedback became measurable. Someone seeking applause can immediately see which posts elicit the most likes and shares—and which are ignored. Platforms offer users analytic tools that tell them, in real time, how many people have viewed a post and engaged with it. Creators repeat what went viral in the past, hoping for another dopamine rush of engagement. This feedback loop trains people to become the personas their audiences demand.
- Audience feedback became specific. There’s no need for a focus group when your followers will happily share what they like and dislike via comments.
Unfortunately, online audiences rarely want sane, reasonable, decent, thoughtful, and kind content. They get high off the extremes. This is why audience capture is such a danger for leaders with online platforms. For Christians, resisting audience capture means naming the problem biblically, repenting when we fail, and seeking proper formation in the body of Christ.
Social Media Is a Mirror Machine
In Genesis 1, humans were created in the image of God, suggesting we’re designed to reflect his glory and character in the created world. After the fall, however, our ability to mirror God became dysfunctional. Instead of reflecting God’s love, justice, and mercy, we reflect the greed, hatred, vanity, and lust of the broken humans around us.
The French philosopher René Girard called the human tendency to reflect the desires of others “mimesis.” Drawing wisdom from Scripture, he observed that we only want what we see other people want. A person’s inner longings don’t spring up ex nihilo from his heart. They come from the outside in. We learn what to love by watching what other people love. Mimetic desire is the die in which “I” is cast.
Social media is best understood as a massive mimetic machine. It shapes our desires by showing us the desires of others in the form of likes, shares, and comments. Every engagement is a mimetic dopamine hit. YouTube was the mimetic cocoon in which Nicholas Perry became Nikocado. He turned his heart’s mirror toward his audience, transforming into a living parody of their desires. When we turn our hearts’ mirrors toward the Twitter mobs, TikTok junkies, and Instagram superfans, we suffer the same metamorphic fate.
This is the ultimate trapdoor in the hall of fame; to become a prisoner of one’s own persona. The desire for recognition in an increasingly atomized world lures us to be who strangers wish us to be. And with personal development so arduous and lonely, there is ease and comfort in crowdsourcing your identity.
When a mimetic creature steps into a mimetic machine, she takes a great risk. If she does so blindly—believing that whatever she thinks or feels afterward will be an expression of her true self or her honest thoughts—she’ll inevitably offer herself as a living sacrifice to the machine.
How to Resist Mimetic Machines
For all these reasons, Christians on social media should actively seek to live our online lives coram deo, before the face of God, not coram auditorium, before the face of the audience.
The practices by which we do this aren’t revolutionary: sacraments, worship, prayer, Scripture, repentance, and community. These means of grace bring us into the presence of the living God—you cannot mirror a being you never encounter, after all—and do so through embodied means. They offer a potent means of recalibration in a world where digital malformation is hard to resist.
Christians on social media should actively seek to live our online lives coram deo, before the face of God, not coram auditorium before the face of the audience.
Christian community is an especially vital buffer against the distorting lure of social media mimesis. We too easily replace the gaze of the Christian community—which sanctifies us through correction and uplifts us by encouragement—with the gaze of online audiences. What your Christian spouse sees in you and wants from you differ radically from what your online audience desires. She wants you to wash the dishes as an act of sacrificial love. The crowd wants you to own the libs. Likewise, your Christian friends want your faithful presence, a listening ear, accountability, and encouragement, whereas your audience just wants you to dunk on the MAGA fascists.
In my own experience, I’m healthiest when I care far less about the opinions of online admirers than I care about the people who know my kids’ names, personalities, quirks, and problems. Those are the people who see me as I am, and by the grace of God shape me into a real person—not a persona. My local community is the best at telling me when I’m on the verge of becoming a rhetorically monstrous, mimetic caricature of my audience—so I can repent.
Indeed, repentance is the last and final key. All of us should make a practice of repenting any time our audience takes us captive. Repentance is the only medicine strong enough to reverse a digital transmutation. Though it may never give you the world, repentance does secure your soul—and protects you from becoming a Christian Nikocado.