On Social Media Breaks and What Matters

I’ve recently taken about two months away from all social media. I made this choice at the end of January in order to focus on the process of writing my Master’s thesis, a full draft of which I turned in this last Monday. I wanted to get away from social media chiefly because my various news feeds (Instagram, Twitter and especially Facebook) were becoming big time vacuums, wherein I would easily lose 15-20 minutes at a time without even realizing it.

Offline.Beyond the functional element to the decision, I also wanted to test run a time away from the daily church of social media. This had been something growing inside of me for a while, partly influenced by some blogs I read regularly, and podcasts I listen to, who were spending a good amount of time reflecting on the power of social media and technology to shape our daily lives. For me, this meant an unreasonably large amount of time and attention being sucked up into obsessing over the political news of the day. I felt so stretched, and angry, and like I had no ability to focus. I know it was affecting my ability  to write, both academically and here.

So, I’ve gone two months without any social media in my life. And it’s been actually really, really great. Great for me on a personal, psychological level. Great for me on an academic level. I’ve been able to slow the pace of my own mind, to take time to really think about things, and take time for reflection. I’ve been practicing what Cal Newport calls solitude, which isn’t necessarily being alone, but is instead the idea of not having any input; that is, not allowing anyone else to be contributing thoughts or ideas into your head, whether that be reading or listening to a podcast or music or looking at social media or anything. Instead, solitude means you are alone in your head with your thoughts; it gives you time to think, and it may at time feel scary, but after a while, it becomes really freeing. On a recent podcast with Ezra Klein, Newport said you can even experience solitude on a crowded train, as long as you aren’t actively seeking an input of any sort. Give it a try. It’s really great.

Being away from social media has also helped reset my priorities. For so long, I, like almost everyone else I know, was driven by the daily news cycle, mostly via my Facebook news feed. You know what I mean: whatever the daily news story is, no matter how trivial or crazy, becomes what everyone is talking about, posting about, ranting about, thinking about. Whether its the latest Trump controversy, something a politician said, a political flash point, a celebrity controversy, or whatever: simply by being on Facebook or Twitter, and seeing a hundred stories about it, it becomes what you are thinking about in a latent fashion, and it gains outsize importance. It, in effect, becomes its own bubble, a bubble that distorts its own importance. Things in this social media bubble seem very, very important to the future of our political discourse because everyone is talking about them, and so they must be important.

For instance, I left social media right at the height of the controversy surrounding a Native American protester and his confrontation with a young MAGA kid. Remember that? It seemed terribly important at the time. I remember being very angry about that for days, even when I wasn’t on Facebook. It seemed like a huge deal that said Something Very Important about politics.

And then I left social media. And I no longer saw anything at all about it. And I realized: it wasn’t important at all. I mean, it was important for the people involved. But, in a larger scheme of things – and I don’t just mean in a larger, four-year election cycle scale, but a scale even wider than that – it just didn’t matter at all. I subsequently forgot about it; from what I can tell from talking to people, it faded from the news and was replaced, and has hardly been thought about since. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t really reveal anything about our political moment, or public policy, or the way the world is. It just….happened. And then nothing.

That incidence, and all the many small Facebook and Twitter-worthy controversies that have occurred since them, made me realize something somewhat profound (at least as far I am concerned): all those things happening on social media – the political debates, the controversies, the stupid things your crazy uncle posts, the fights over any number of things – all that stuff just doesn’t even actually exist. I mean, it kind of exists, in people’s heads. But really, speaking substantially, it doesn’t exist. And yet we all spend so much time getting so worked up over it! We all get so angry, and flustered, and then we start over obsessing over something someone commented on our wall, and we wonder what stupid thing someone posted today, and next thing you know, you are spending all day thinking about a virtual world that doesn’t actually exist and doesn’t actually matter!

I know this could potentially sound, to someone immersed in that world, practically insane. Of course these things matter! Right?

After two months away, I say no. They don’t. There are a lot of news-worthy things happening in the world, things that I heard about despite not being on Facebook, slower moving things that weren’t terribly click-bait-ey, but which are undeniably important and consequential. I was able to refocus on these kinds of news stories, and I was able to do it at my pace, not at the pace dictated to me by Facebook’s algorithm. I have also been able, by not being spoon-fed a plethora of small news controversies and political topics that I actually don’t care all that much about, get a handle on what I do actually care about, what things do concern me and grab my interest. By clearing so much of the political news clutter out of my own personal news feed in my brain, I have become able to realize what kinds of issues really hold my interest and actually matter to me. In my case, it has been the environment and climate change. I have come to be greatly alarmed about what is happening with our natural world, and what it means for our future, and have been able to spend some time reading about our changing world. I had never been quite so terrified about the prospects for environmental change before now, and I think that was because the drive of the news cycle hadn’t allowed me the time to think too deeply about any one issue.

Obviously, this has all entailed theological change for me as well. I have, in the words of Arne Rasmussen in his really good book The Church as Polis, begun to move from a political theology, to a theological politics. I’m going to expand what I mean by this in a future post, but in short, it means I have been able to get to a head space where my theological priorities are less dictated by the world as it is, by politics and public affairs, but instead by letting my theology, my understanding of God and Christ and the story of the Gospel, dictate what my politics are about. This is a notion I had been circling for a long time, well before this social media break, that was sometimes evident in some of the things I had written here, but I had had a really hard time figuring it out. Old blog posts here showcase my own inner confusion. I no longer hold some of the positions that I have written about here; or, perhaps a better way to say this is, I no longer approach things the same way I have before, and I hope whatever writing I do here in the future reflects that. I’m not going to take down or change anything I previously published here, but I do of course reserve the right to work myself out in public and let my changes be evident for all to see. Such is the life of blogging on the internet, I suppose.

I’m not totally back on social media. I have logged back into Instagram, because I really feel like it is the least damaging and absorbing of all social media. I like pictures. It’s easy. I have also logged back into Twitter, which I have always used more as a reader and not as someone who tweets. I am, however, paring my follow list way back, mostly to things concerning the sports teams I care about. As for Facebook, I’m not really going back there in any substantial way. I don’t miss it. In fact, the idea of spending time there, after two months without, is really unappealing and borderline anxiety-inducing. I’m definitely not logging in on my phone, and I’ll just use it sparingly on my laptop, reserving the right to very liberally use the unfollow and block buttons on people. I don’t need that negativity.

One last way this social media sabbatical has effected me: I mentioned this above, but I feel I can write again. Clearing the clutter has given my brain time to slow down, to think about things in a more substantial way, and to develop ideas again, which I hope to be reflected here. We’ll see. I’ve been promising myself for the better part of three years that I’ll write regularly here again, and so far it hasn’t happened so, who knows. Here’s hoping. But I do know that I want to write about:

  • my approach as theological politics, as opposed to political theology
  • social media as performative righteousness
  • the telos of social justice
  • hope, utopian dreams, and nihilism
  • the difference between faith and belief
  • reflecting on topics related to my thesis
  • lots and lots of quotes from books
  • coherence and incoherence

So we’ll see how it goes. Happy spring to everyone.





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