Why are people who quit social media so amusing? After years of embroiled use, a bad break up, a nasty spat, a vague feeling of listlessness, another Luddite throws up his hands and renounces social media with—of all things—a tweet or a Facebook status: “Friends, I’m deactivating my account in a week. I can’t take it anymore. Email me instead.” A handful of friends say he’ll be missed, though most of us aren’t exactly complaining. A few even hit the like button. No one is surprised to see him back in a month or two with a new profile picture—the one where it looks like he cropped himself out of a selfie with his college girlfriend at a dance—and a new habit of punctuating his soliloquies with fruit emojis. After the eleventh picture of what he ate for breakfast, we discreetly hit the “unfollow” button and consider quitting Facebook altogether—but wait, isn’t that trending?
[Note: this essay was first published by Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with permission.]
The number of people closing their social media accounts is rising, just barely, but enough to ask: Is not having a Facebook account becoming fashionable? The only scientific answer is … maybe. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Deleting your Twitter could become the new normcore (wearing “normal” clothing to blend in with the crowd). Deactivating your Instragram could become the new moonwalk—you know, that gliding motion that makes the dancer appear to be moving forward when in fact he is moving backward. Whether or not it’s actually happening I leave to the data-crunching researchers and their amassed statistical compendia, though I will put forward one anecdote: I have not yet met a hipster who was not connected.
The fact that quitting social media could be considered a fashion statement at all only confirms for me why it might be time to take a break from Facebook: social media turns everything into a thing. Like grandma’s tawdry jewelry, the medium solicits a servile display of exaggerated flattery or affection that is—literally!—a show. For years, I have tried to connect with distant relatives and friends through status updates, throwing intimate details of my life (the pie I baked, the smile of my newborn son, my wife’s new glasses) into the void. That High School friend I haven’t seen in years? He’ll comment. The youth minister of that mega church I used to attend? She’ll definitely “like.” The librarian I e-mailed to sort out my fines? Hey, she might even “share,” you never know. After years of scanning my newsfeed, let me tell you: no emoticon can express the raw pulse of deactivating your Facebook account.
Amusing, perhaps, and I’ll probably be back in a month or two, but may I trouble you with one more word on the perils of social media? My thesis is simple: When it comes to social media, you’ll never wake up with a story to tell. It robs us of the sacrament of the present moment. Like AOL’s digital prophet “Shingy,” yet not at all like Shingy, I believe in “storytelling—more story, less telling.”
“Then I posted it,” grandpa says, and the grandchildren lean in.
“Within minutes, it had almost twenty likes,” he says. His granddaughter can hardly suppress a child-like Whoa.
“But then,” and here Grandpa’s voice begins to growl, “my old college roommate left a snarky comment.”
The children gasp.
“After praying about it, I hit … the button.”
A hush falls over the room. Grandpa wipes his brow with a camouflage hanky, just like back in ’Nam. “I hit the button in the upper right hand corner of my keypad,” he repeats, and then whispers: “Delete.”
Who are we kidding? Doing Facebook is boring. It doesn’t matter how interesting your real life is: the act of social media is, in and of itself, not a good story. Turning any given moment of your life into a “Kodak moment,” actually diminishes the moment. Singing Happy Birthday to your five year-old is a different kind of shared experience than having her strike a pose, hold the cake at just the right angle, taking a picture, and then peering into your smart phone—it’ll only take a sec!—as you choose which filter to use on Instagram and write a caption with your index finger: “My little princess.”
All this storytelling needs more story, and a lot less telling. You have a life. But in always telling it, you’re losing the story. However beautiful or funny your selfies look, however witty or cute your status updates sound, as soon as you share a story from your life on Facebook, you’ve just lost a little part of life.
The bodily act of social media is hunched, cross-eyed, trifling, reptilian. The gestures of a Midwest farmer feeding chickens or milking a cow are engaging, almost beautiful. The somatic rhythms of cutting carrots or sewing a quilt or folding the laundry are graceful, even poetic. The everyday routines of brushing teeth or taking out the trash or turning the page of a book—this is the stuff of art. But the physical gesture, the living breathing moment, of posting something on Facebook is not worth painting, sculpting, putting pen to paper. The human form engaged in social media is a bent, fastidious, anxious thing.
How many couples sit in their living rooms, faces glowing in the half-light of their laptops, together but not together? How many childhoods have been made a public spectacle? How many calls have never been dialed, letters never stamped, dinner invitations never sent, and all because everyone already has a vague sense of being connected? Time in front of the screen is up, so is depression, after bouts of cybersex even adults break-up via text, the demand for prescription lenses is at an all time high, and kids are fatter than ever.
None of the adverse outcomes of social media were intended, of course, but the individual decisions to post and like and share ended up contributing to them. These tiny moments multiply into a life. The millions of individual tweets, posted for millions of individual reasons, have snowballed into one massive story that’s not worth telling.
I had a vision of lying on my deathbed, stealing glances at my newsfeed with a mixture of remorse and bitterness. My kids were there, but half there, stealing glances at their smart phones, wondering how they’ll tweet about it when I’m gone.
A few minutes here, a few minutes there. Taken as a whole, over the ten years I’ve had a Facebook account, these minutes have turned into twenty-four hour days, seven-day weeks. Yet for all the pokes and likes and comments, I don’t have a single story worth telling. The accumulated months of scrolling through my newsfeed are as memorable as passing an Oldsmobile on the freeway.
That I have a personal problem or that I am too hard on social media is an erroneous characterization of my thesis. Television, smart phones, the Internet itself—there are many contributing factors to the adverse effects of the phenomenon I am calling “social media.” But it is social media that makes the Internet sizzle with the illusion of life. The comment boxes and share buttons are what turn the screen into a simulacrum of the barbershops of yore. Online, what would we “do” without social media?
My son is almost seven months old. From the moment he was born I have been possessed by an impulse to photograph him with my iPhone. “Tyler, come look!” my wife calls from the kitchen. Our son is holding a toy block and belly laughing like it’s the funniest thing in the world … and I run to grab the camera. I’m on a mission “to capture” the moment. So I am no longer present. I am literally no longer in the room with my happy boy. I return, phone in hand, but the smile is gone. I thrust the toy block at him and coax just one more grin for the camera. Then I open Instagram. I think of a clever hashtag, and “share.” It took only a minute or two, but my desire to capture the moment ruined the moment.
I am finished. Mixing social media with daily life diminishes daily life. When I’m with my son, I want him to be able to take for granted that I am there. And no matter how often I might look up from my phone, if our time together is material for social media, I will never be more than half there. I want him to grow up in a home that is a safe haven, not a stage.
St. Paul encourages us to be in the world but not of the world. The KJV puts it this way: “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2). This is not easy. It is difficult to see the face of Christ in your neighbor, difficult to rest in the sacrament of the present moment. Social media does not help. It doesn’t help transformation, renewing the mind, or proving what is good. In the end, the only thing that can be said for having a Facebook account is that it is to be of the world but not in it—and this is to lose on both fronts.
We are in flight from the sacrament of the present moment, and we are using social media as the vehicle for that flight. To conform to its methods of relating to people, its conventions and systems, is to risk deforming the face of Christ in our neighbor. It is to risk telling a story that is increasingly not worth telling.
All the while, anonymity is just one click away. Just imagine: someday no one will know it’s your birthday except your mom and a few close friends, and no one except the relatives you invited over will know what’s for dinner! But until then, something is dangerously close to being lost.
My list of concerns is by no mean exhaustive, but I do think most of us feel at a gut level that we are absorbed in a world that is, when talked about in real life, profoundly boring. In emoji terms, my concern is for the fruit of social media; that is, while poop emojis might exist, it is by the fruit that my critique of social media should be judged.
Somewhere a child is pulling her mom’s hand in the condiments aisle: “Just a sec, sweetie. I’m trying to compose a tweet.”
“Can you give me a few minutes?” someone, somewhere, is shouting over the din that passes for conversation at Applebees. “I’m trying to find some Ke$ha GIFs.”
While the world swarms around what’s trending, I’ll be talking to a neighbor on the front porch, playing cribbage and chuckling with righteous pleasure, and no one will know about it.
Read it in Crisis Magazine.