Social Media: Mad and Matter

Three months ago, after about 6 years of using Facebook and 18 months on Twitter and Instagram, I deactivated all of my social networking accounts.  Before I get into what I have to say about that, though, I want to go back in time about 20 years.  When I was in college, email had just been invented and we were introduced for the first time to something called the World Wide Web, something described to us as an indexed database that we could access through a browser known as Netscape Navigator.  We weren’t even sure why it was relevant.  But by the time I started grad school, email had become the primary way that people communicated, the Internet was in common use, and the technological world had witnessed its first browser war.  Fast forward a little less than a decade.  Facebook was created in 2004.  Twitter got its start 2006.  And Instagram was launched in 2010.  Facebook now has about 1.23 billion users, Twitter has 243 million active monthly users, and Instagram has 200 million users.[1]  Social networking sites have now become a fundamental part of our daily existence and have profoundly shaped the way that we interact in today’s society.

Social media has a lot of benefits and provides a great way for quick and easy connection with people.  It’s a fabulous and almost effortless way to disseminate information to a large number of people in a very short amount of time.  Plus, it’s as easy to connect with old friends and acquaintances as it is to connect with new acquaintances, strangers, celebrities, politicians, and co-workers.  We can tailor its parameters according to the kind of experience we want to have through it, ranging from a private and limited experience to a completely open and public one.  It appeals to our human desire to be connected to people and the world.  We get to see pictures of our closest friends and their families.  We also get to follow important world events and be up-to-date on causes that are important to us.  It gives us a window into what the various people in our lives are thinking, feeling, and experiencing; plus, it gives us a forum to share the same about ourselves with others.  Like so many, I was connected to a mixture of close friends, acquaintances, well-known bloggers, social justice organizations, news sources, and high-profile individuals.  It seemed like an interesting and relatively low-maintenance way to keep up with people, world events, and just causes.

What I found, however, was that it opened the floodgates to a tsunami of opinions, good and bad news, worthy causes, visual images, videos, stories, entertainment, expressions of boredom, rants, complaints, confessions, laments, celebrations, birthday reminders, event announcements, advice, and random information.  In a 15-minute snippet of time, it was entirely possible for me to take in the following: a photo of a bombing scene in Nigeria, a snapshot of someone’s cappuccino, news about a death, a birth announcement, a report about a sex trafficking victim who was just rescued, someone’s annoyance about finding a hole in her favorite cashmere sweater, a link to an article about poverty, 3 birthday notifications, an invitation to 2 events (1 party and 1 fundraiser), and several profound reflections from various bloggers, pastors and missionaries.  This meant that I could feel brokenhearted, joyful, inspired, challenged, convicted about my sin, and outraged; I could wish 3 people happy birthday on their respective walls; and I could add 2 events to my social calendar – all before I finished my cup of tea.  And I came to see this as normal.

Last year was filled with intense relational ministry, however, and by the time fall hit, I was in a state of complete physical, spiritual, and emotional burnout.  I was depressed, joyless, sick, and exhausted.  It was around this time that I found myself getting angry and agitated on a regular basis over things I saw on either Twitter or Facebook.  By the time January came around, my husband, Peter, gently recommended that I take a break from social media for a while.  I had been reading Henri Nouwen’s book, Way of the Heart, which emphasized the importance of solitude, silence, and prayer, and Peter pointed out that if I really wanted to make room for those things, I needed to unplug and disconnect from the constant input and output that social media involved.  I’ll be honest – that option didn’t appeal to me initially.  I had gotten hooked on the need to “know” things, even though 80% of it was either trivial or about people I barely knew, 10% of it tended to provoke me to anger, and only a portion of the remaining percentage contained information that was potentially useful or edifying.  The thought of giving up my daily intake of knowledge, information, and social intelligence actually made me feel a little bit of anxiety and sadness, like a kid being asked to give up a favorite toy that was being relied on for self-soothing.  I suppose it’s related to the hunger for control and omniscience that drove our first parents to partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Fundamentally, that was a choice to embrace the doubt that God, our Creator and Sustainer, was enough.  When I recognized the similarities, I decided it was at least worth a season of social media fasting.  So I deactivated all of the accounts, removed the apps from my phone, and removed the bookmarks from my desktop browser.

Before you think this post is building up to some climactic point at which I tell everyone to get off social media, let me assure you that it’s not.  First of all, I don’t believe in prescribing universal directives about these kinds of things; and besides, recommending that everyone get off social media is about as useful as telling people to stop driving cars.  I do believe, however, that I’ve learned some valuable things over the past 3 months that are worth sharing.  I have to provide somewhat of a disclaimer here and acknowledge that not everyone will relate to what I’m about to share, and a lot of it won’t even apply to a good number of people who might stumble across this post.  All that said, here I go.

 

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black-and-white-audienceLife with a Constant Audience – Losing Touch with the Sacred.  Sharing my thoughts and life events in social media forums became a regular habit.  I didn’t post every day, but I did post regularly; and some days, if I was feeling particularly fired up, I posted multiple times.  I suppose it started out innocently enough as a simple way of letting my friends hear from me.  But as with so many things, it was an entry point to a slippery slope down the seductive path of self-promotion.  Before I realized it, I found myself trying to be wittier, more dramatic, more entertaining, and more profound.  When something funny happened, I didn’t just enjoy a good laugh.  I also thought about what a cool status update it would make.  If my daughter did or said anything amusing or clever, my almost immediate impulse became the need to share it on Facebook.  If she made a funny face, I sometimes had her do it again so that I could take a photo of it and post in on Instagram.  If Peter and I were out on a date, I would post a picture or status update about it.  If I had just finished having a great conversation with a friend, I would announce to my social network what a meaningful time I had just had.  If something in God’s Word hit me in a significant way, I put it out there.  If I learned something important, I put it out there.  Eventually, I found myself constantly reaching for my smart phone to connect with… well, an audience.  I may have thought at the time that I was capturing moments like some sort of historian, but paradoxically, the very act of “capturing” them for the sake of a virtual audience ensured that I never fully experienced them, that I was never fully in them.  The moments in my life became a means to an end, and the end was to elicit a response in others – like some sort of personal marketing campaign.  The sacredness of people, of the moments themselves, and even of God’s communication with me became shrouded in a heavy cloak of self-service.

Quite a few studies have shown that social media activity actually does something to the brain. Neuroscientists have observed a link between the drive to build a better reputation and the intensity of people’s Facebook usage, since they both stimulate a reward center in the brain known as the nucleus accumbens in a similar way.[2,3]  But this is nothing more than a scientific way of representing what the Bible already tells us: that our hearts, under the influence of the fall, are primarily oriented away from God and others and toward the self, that whatever favorable orientation we have toward God and others exists to the extent that it serves our own purposes.  Our biology merely reflects our spiritual state.

talk1Slow to Listen, Quick to Speak.  When you make it a habit of publicly displaying the various details of your life and of impulsively expressing thoughts and opinions that pop into your head, you are actually giving up a certain degree of self-regulation and discretion, and thus you forfeit a good bit of wisdom.  I’m embarrassed to admit that although I once thought that doing so was foolish, I ended up using social media as a way to express just about everything: joy, sadness, hope, despair, anger, approval, disapproval, agreement, disagreement, where I stood on controversial issues, personal moments shared with friends and family, etc.  This significant suspension of self-regulation produced quite a few negative results, but there are several specific instances that stand out in my mind as pure foolishness on my part.  In these instances, I was unhappy with specific people about specific things, and I tweeted my disapproval/opinion concerning these things, knowing that there was a high likelihood that my “targets” would see it.  And they did.  And each one of them said, “Wow, after reading your tweet, I realized that I need to change my errant ways.”  Actually, no.  The truth is it made them angry and embittered them toward me.  And those are just the 2 people that I know about – the ones who approached me personally to repair the relationship.  It makes me sad to think about how many others I may have alienated or offended or put on the defensive because I exercised poor self-control over my impulses, whether they were driven by judgment, pride, fear or some other base emotion.

As Christians who ought to be taking seriously the importance of developing and maintaining self-control, a great many of us seem to give ourselves a pass on the need to exercise it in this area.  As a result, we are actually training ourselves to speak hastily and untraining ourselves in the art of listening, contrary to the biblical admonition to “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…” (James 1:19) and “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (Proverbs 18:13)  We forget that the consequences are significant: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.  The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:6-10)  In this day and age, our fingertips are more likely to get us in trouble than our actual tongues, although they are arguably mere extensions of the tongue; and the speech brought forth by the tongue has always been a measure of a person’s character. Proverbs 17:28 reminds us, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

Here I was a (mostly) respectable middle-aged woman who knew better, yet I had used a public forum to indirectly “send a message” to someone to make a point.  More than once.  More than twice.  What the heck?!  I now realize (sadly and sheepishly) that in my enthusiasm to keep up with the technological trends of the times, I had over time allowed myself to become extensively shaped by technology culture, which allowed large-scale erosion of what once resembled mature relational skills and better judgment.  Social media wasn’t responsible for that.  I was.  I had to face the realization that in each of those instances, I had chosen a lazy, cowardly, passive-aggressive, and unloving way to communicate.  The question is “Why?”  What had been the appeal?

turning_gearsSeduced by Efficiency, Power and Control.  For starters, it required virtually nothing of me to lob a unidirectional declaration into cyberspace.  I could literally type a sentence, hit send, and then return to my other activities without giving it another thought.  The alternative, on the other hand, would have required a lot more of me and from me.  It would have required inviting other people into a mutual process of discovery and understanding.  It would have involved some degree of inconvenience.  It would have involved humility.  And it would have involved dialogue, which requires active listening, not just talking or typing a sentence or two.  The process of inviting others into dialogue would have slowed things down significantly; and in our hurried and functionally oriented culture, we tend to view time as a precious commodity to be efficiently and productively spent.  Spending it on trying to unpack the complexities of people and risking the frustration and failure that are often associated with reaching out to people is not usually our first choice.  We tend to view conflicts as unwelcome inconveniences to the more pressing matters on our agenda.  I would take it a step further and argue that we actually view and treat people, not just conflicts with them, this way as well.  People get in the way of our goals.  People prevent us from being productive.  People ruin everything.  Yet Jesus our Savior came to, ate with, cried with, healed, restored, resurrected, died for, and ransomed people – not our agendas, our goals, or our productivity.  People are God’s prized creation, formed in his image to reflect uniquely his glory and his nature.  They are worth the investment of our time.  They are worth the inconvenience.  I have no doubt that if I had chosen the “inconvenient” path of dialogue instead of the ease of throwing Twitter grenades, I would have created a lot more space for meaningful exchange, as well as mutual understanding and transformation.

And then, of course, the opportunity to use Twitter or Facebook as a mortar launcher appealed to that ungodly part of me that wants to be able to control and manipulate people into doing, feeling, or thinking what I want them to do, feel or think.  We all carry within ourselves the propensity for this, whether small or large, and for many of us, the unrestricted availability of social media as a place to act out this propensity is too great a temptation to resist when we are having a moment, or perhaps a season, of weakness.  I didn’t make this connection until recently, but every time we indulge that part of us that likes to control and manipulate others, we are cultivating in our hearts a posture of seeking the approval of man instead of the approval of God, because our focus turns toward how others are responding to us.  We increasingly desire to assess how effective we are at producing the desired response in others, and we begin to care less and less about what God says about us, about them, or about the way we are all relating to one another.  In that way, we end up giving the masses a sort of unfettered access to our hearts and minds, while erecting barriers to our Lord’s access to the same.  It distorts our perspective, but more than that, I actually think it makes us crazy.  How many of us have been deluded into believing that based on people’s tweets and status updates, we can accurately know and understand what is actually going on in their lives?  And how many of us walk around stark raving mad about someone else’s status update  or 140-character-or-less tweet, an insensitive comment, an inappropriate “like,” the absence of a “like,” witnessing our “friends” make virtual connections that threaten or offend us, or a host of other things that won’t even matter the moment we are restored to our right minds?  The moment our God-given, blood-of-Christ-purchased eternal perspective returns to us?

restlessmindA Noisy Thought Life, A Suffocated Prayer Life.  It turns out that being a receptacle for all kinds of news, facts, opinions, images, videos, and everything else that showed up in my news feed created a really noisy thought life that had my mind constantly flitting from one thought to another.  It shredded my attention span.  It became hard for me to read emails that exceeded a paragraph in length.  I had a really hard time quieting both my mind and my heart.  It affected the quality of my prayer life and therefore my ability to hear from God.  I just don’t think that we were created with the capacity to process that much information in such a short amount of time all the time.  I was reminded, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)  I came to feel a deep conviction that as a finite creature with definite limitations in physical, emotional, and mental capacity, opening myself up to such a massive stream of STUFF amounted to a very poor exercise in stewardship of my entire being.  How was I to discern God’s specific direction in giving amidst the flood of vital needs being paraded before me?  How was I to determine which battles God wanted me to fight when there were always ongoing battles and debates into which I could instantly insert myself simply by jumping onto a comment thread?  How was I to have clarity about which relationships to invest in when I was spending so much time reading about the minutiae of so many people that I barely knew?  Limits are important because they create the space, peace, solitude, and silence that are necessary for us to: 1) hear clearly from the Lord, 2) see ourselves rightly, 3) see others rightly, and 4) be filled up by Jesus Himself.  Without them, we’re completely subject to the whims and emotions of both ourselves and others.

 

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Life without a Virtual Audience: Getting Reacquainted With the Sacred.  Ok, I’m going to admit that not having a virtual audience to share my moments with felt strange for the first few days.  You might even say that I went through withdrawal.  I kept picking up my phone and then setting it down when I realized that I had no apps to click on and no news feed to read through.  But I eventually got over it – delirium tremens, hallucinations, light sensitivity, vomiting, and all.  Just kidding about the light sensitivity.

I feel like I was able to see – really see – the people in my life again.  I was able to be present to them in ways that I hadn’t been in a long time.  Laughter became sacred again.  Tears of both joy and grief became sacred again.  Conversations became sacred again.  God’s communication with me became sacred again.

Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak.  While I can’t say that I’ve mastered living out this biblical admonition (nowhere close to mastering it, really), I can say that things are trending in the right direction.  I have experienced the firm but gentle discipline of God in this area over the past few months as he has revealed and dealt with the following things in my heart: pride, unforgiveness, idolatry, rebelliousness, and hardness of heart.  As a result, I find that I have a lot less need to say things and much more need to listen.  I also don’t make nearly as many assumptions as I used to.

Relinquishing Power and Control. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words, “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:30)  When I look back at the way I used social media as a medium for trying to control the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others, I know without a doubt that cutting it off was exactly what I needed to do.  And I can happily report that doing so resulted in my being able to open up my clenched fists around many things.  Do I still struggle with wanting to be in control?  Yes, of course.  I probably always will.  But I don’t feel like the struggle controls me anymore.

A Quieted Thought Life – The Medium for Listening Prayer.  I have no doubt that I have missed many people’s birthdays, life events, gossip, and even important news, but I have found that God still makes me aware of what I need to know and when.  And as a result, I feel much more connected to what He is doing in and around me than I have in years.  My mind feels much quieter, my prayers have been much more focused, and Scripture feels much more alive to me.  I’ve also been much more in touch with my own heart.  The contrast has been stark.

 

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Yes, I’m back on Facebook.  But this time around, I am doing things very differently.  No more impulse posting, no more compulsive newsfeed reading.  I have very specific parameters for which notifications I receive.  I’m not using the smart phone app, and I will only check it at designated times and spend a predetermined length of time on it.  I’m looking forward to keeping up with certain friends again, seeing pictures of their kids, and enjoying the ease of connection that Facebook provides.  It’s a great tool.  As for Twitter and Instagram, well… they’re great too.  I just don’t see the need for them right now.

 

Resources:

[1] Smith, Craig. “How Many People Use the Top 415 Social Media, Apps and Tools? (March 2014).” Digital Marketing Ramblings. March 9, 2014.  http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/resource-how-many-people-use-the-top-social-media/#.U1Ufdcd2dFc, accessed 4/21/14.

[2] Boyle, Allen.  “Addicted to Facebook fame?  Blame your brain’s nucleus accumbens.” NBC News: Science News. August 29, 2013. http://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/addicted-facebook-fame-blame-your-brains-nucleus-accumbens-f8C11036930, accessed 4/21/14.

[3] Brewer, Judson. “Are We Addicted to Facebook, or Are We just Addicted to Ourselves?” The Huffington Post.  October 14, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-judson-brewer/social-media-addiction_b_4079697.html, accessed 4/21/14

 

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