I have just come back on to social media after a forty day “fast” from it. I use the quotation marks because let’s not kid ourselves that this was particularly taxing; although it was more challenging than I expected. The point of this, as I explained before, was to get some perspective on the place social media had come to have in my life, in order to engage with it better. I would love to hear from others who have been doing this too; but here are some reflections to, hopefully, kick off a discussion.
1. Social Media is not simply evil. One of the things that was obvious to me was that I missed out on some good things, and on being able to use social media for some good things. I didn’t go into this thinking social media was simply wicked; but I think this is important to say. There are some genuinely good things about Facebook, for example – the connections it enables with people not otherwise connected. So far so not rocket science.
2. But, Social Media is also not “neutral”. One of the dominant myths in our day is the myth of technological neutrality – that technology is simply a tool lying neutral in our hands that we can put to whatever purpose we choose. This, however, is false. Social Media programs are tools designed by human beings – sinful ones – with a variety of better or worse purposes in mind. Like all technology, social media is infused with human intentionality from the very beginning. This makes it foolish to expect it to be neutral, and that myth will only blind us to the subtle ways in which we are being moved by this technology. It also hides the fact that the very use of social media also commits you to a whole range of things before you’ve even begun. The most important of these may be to do with our attitudes towards knowledge – our feelings about what we ought to know about and have opinions about.
3. Social Media has an impact on our attention. One of the interesting things I discovered early on was that I probably hadn’t been “wasting” heaps of time on social media (although see below). I didn’t find myself having lots of free time. I suspect the case was more that social media was filling gaps. Yet I did come to feel that this had another impact. Early on in the fast I felt a need to check Facebook and Twitter that I had to resist. This brought home to me that Social Media can be very intrusive even if we don’t have, say “push notifications”. Because we quickly internalise the need to receive notifications. Our desires become, in a way, part of the program. This need to check disappeared, however, within about two weeks. I suddenly realised I didn’t feel the need to check it anymore. I found this refreshing. We can indeed change the place Facebook has in our lives, and it doesn’t take that much will power. The biggest difference I found that this made had to do with attention. As time went on, I actually found I was able to attend to things better. I did not expect this to happen, but I actually read and listened to more substantial stuff than usual during the last weeks of the fast. This suggested to me that social media was in fact having an impact on my ability to pay attention to things.
4. Social Media can very easily create a distorted outlook. One thing that did become apparent was the potential distortions that come from having information and ideas pushed at me by sources I have selected. Media people speak about “echo chambers” – that is, a situation where groups essentially speak amongst themselves and don’t cross over much with other perspectives. I think Facebook is especially prone to this: to just creating a situation where I am only hearing from a certain set of people and I am only speaking to them. This ought to be a source of concern.
5. We need to think about what appeals to us about social media. There are, I believe, some potentially good things and good ways to use social media. It seems to me, however, that there are also some more ambiguous reasons we find it attractive. Two stand out to me. First, I think we are attracted to the idea of knowing what is going on. This is, I think, often what we mean when we speak about “being connected” – we like knowing what is going on. I think we should stop and think about this. Why does this appeal to us? Is it actually a good thing to want? The reason I think we need to be careful here is that the Bible has a more complex attitude towards knowledge. Knowledge is not necessarily a good thing – or at least, our sinful nature means that we very often fail to let it be good. Knowledge puffs up, says the Bible. Knowledge is only good insofar as it fuels and facilitates love. My question about this felt need to know, then, is, does this desire to know exceed our capacity to love, and if so, should we pursue it?
The second more ambiguous appeal of social media is this: I think social media can appeal to us because of its capacity to fill voids of time. As I said above, I think social media was largely filling gaps during my day. This, however, is worth noticing. For why do I have these gaps, and why do I need to fill them. Sometimes, perhaps, there’s no problem – waiting for a bus, whatever. But at other times I think social media allows us to distract ourselves from the fact of larger gaps. I remember one or two afternoons over the past month when I suddenly found myself sitting at my desk with – how embarrassing! – not much to do. I was shocked! In each case, after a bit of procrastinating, which made me feel awkward and guilty, I ended up doing something really useful that I hadn’t thought of before. I found myself wondering whether I would have been able to do this if I had been on social media. I think it is just as possible that I could have just spent some time on Facebook and so missed the chance to have that initially frustrating, but ultimately very fruitful, experience of having space with which to choose what to do. If you are reading this thinking, that could never happen to me because I am so busy, please know that this is what I would have said too. But that is my point. we may simply be unaware of how social media use is distorting our awareness of time.
So what have I decided? I will go back on social media, because I think there are good things about it. But I’m going to go back on in a different way. I don’t want to slide back into checking all the time. I think the only way forward is discipline about time use. So, if I’m a bit less contactable than I used to be – that’s why.