About three and a half years ago I decided to delete my Facebook account. I had several reasons, but the biggest was a concern for how social media was forming and shaping me to be more self-focused, rather than less. In subsequent reflection, one of the things that stood out to me most was the feeling of freedom by being able “to disengage from the relentless flow of minutiae and Internet memes.”
This feeling of freedom is, I believe one of the greatest opportunities in a social media fast. We are constantly inundated by information, some of it important and useful, others of it only masquerading as such. At its best, social media offers us a platform to engage in relationship and community. Yet far too often, we engage social media uncritically, without thought to how it is shaping or forming us. While I don’t necessarily advocate that everyone needs to leave Facebook (or any other social media platform), I suspect that nearly everyone could benefit from at least a temporary break from one platform or another.
Breaking from social media helps set us free from more than just unnecessary information and pointless memes. It also sets us free from our digital bubbles.
During the recent annual synod of the Christian Reformed Church, I ended up in conversation with many different people on the #crcsynod twitterverse (yes, those of us who are active on that hashtag are, for the most part, church nerds). Most of those interactions were relatively shallow – unless we already agreed with one another. If we agreed, it was easy to like one another’s tweets and to build a growing sense of consensus. When there was disagreement, however, it was inevitably much harder to engage in meaningful conversation. How does one engage in serious conversation in a series of 140-character statements?
This is not to discount the very real ability of social media to serve a useful function in the Christian life. Some of the connections I’ve made through interactions on the #crcsynod Twitter feed have led to connections and friendships that are not somehow superficial because they are only digital. Yet, because it is so much easier to agree than to disagree, to disengage than to wrestle through shared life together, to mute or block than to offer unrequested forgiveness, I think that social media too easily becomes a self-serving, self-reinforcing digital void where we are surrounded primarily by people with whom we agree.
In light of this, social media has a tendency to reinforce our narcissistic tendencies. We seek self-affirmation through the approval of others, self-worth by how others perceive us. Jesus calls us to be and make disciples, but social media often lures us into the temptation of the ostensibly self-effacing humblebrag where we’re actually more interested in celebrating ourselves and our achievements. We can easily fall into grandstanding without needing to do the hard work of actually doing life with someone with whom we disagree. We become practiced at “speaking into the void,” assuming that everybody wants to or needs to hear our thoughts.
I’m not trying to be a Luddite. I understand why Jes Kast-Keat suggests, “You need to stop saying, ‘You use Twitter/SnapChat/Kik/Facebook too much.’ Nope, you don’t get it. Being a digital native means these are our hangouts. These are the spaces we live in.” Yet just because something is real, just because it’s a place we hang out, physically or digitally, does not mean that we should become disengaged, uncritical consumers. We need to pay attention to the ways that these spaces form us and shape us, the habits that they engender, the thoughts and attitudes they inspire. We need to be willing to ask hard questions about our social media usage. Disciplines like fasting can be excellent ways of exposing our heart and mind, to demonstrate where our thoughts, words, and attitudes may be aimed away from God and/or toward ourselves. Fasting reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. Stepping away from social media reminds us that the world goes on whether we jump on the latest trending topic or not, whether we join the raging debate on our newsfeed or not, whether our “selfie game” is on point or not. In the end, we come to realize that, “It’s easy to do things for the ‘gram or the Vine or the Snap, but TBH, no amount of loops or likes can compare to something as simple as digging your toes in the sand.” When push comes to shove, I don’t agree with Jes’ assessment (despite being a digital native myself): there is a qualitative difference between real life and digital life. Both are wonderful. Both are necessary, but sometimes we need to take a break, run away for the summer, and get away to a lake, a park, or the unfiltered smile of a child’s joy.
By no means do I mean to malign social media in general. I am deeply grateful for the interconnectedness of our world. I am able to follow news on the ground in real time thanks to Twitter. Expanding my Twitter feed to include more women, people of color, and viewpoints with which I disagree has helped me grow in my empathy for other and their experiences. All the same, I suspect that a break would do us good. You may even find yourself, three and a half years later, wondering why you ever thought you needed that social media platform in the first place.