“I want you to talk to me!”
My wife’s voice shook me out of my Twitter-induced hypnosis at the dinner table. She had caught me again: immersed in some sort of conversation on my iPhone. In my mind, I was a welcome guest at a table of intellectual powerhouses, eagerly listening in to their latest discussion, planning how I would jump into this Very Important Conversation.
At least, that’s what I was imagining. But in reality, I wasn’t a participant in a faraway dialogue. I was a husband, sitting two feet away from the person I love most on this planet—and I wasn’t paying any attention. I have no memory of what I was looking at on my iPhone, but I do remember the annoyed look on Emily’s face, and the jealous affection in her voice as she tried to snap me back to life.
Social Media’s Dangerous Allure
I don’t think this kind of moment is unique to me. In fact, the temptation to let social media monopolize our waking thoughts isn’t so much a “bug” of the mobile information age as it may be a feature. That realization is precisely what led Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor University, to unplug from most social media—for good. Jacobs wrote last December of the measures he has taken to withdraw from the tug of constant online connection, including unfollowing everyone on his Twitter account (so as to make his profile simply a place where his new writings can auto-share) and downgrading from a smartphone to a “dumb, dumb phone.”
Earlier this month, Jacobs reflected on social media’s culture of “now,” and the pressure it puts on users to be actively engaged in everything and to put forth an opinion on it all immediately. He’s opted out of that game entirely:
I spent about seven years reading replies to my tweets, and more than a decade reading comments on my blog posts. I have considered the costs and benefits, and I have firmly decided that I’m not going to be held hostage to that stuff any more. The chief reason is not that people are ill-tempered or dim-witted—though Lord knows one of those descriptors is accurate for a distressingly large number of social-media communications—but that so many of them are blown about by every wind of social-media doctrine, their attention swamped by the tsunamis of the moment, their wills captive to the felt need to respond now to what everyone else is responding to now.
I imagine many of us read Jacobs’s critiques of the social media vortex and said, “Amen!” Not only are his descriptions of the pressure to constantly have a “voice” spot-on, but his larger observation seems inarguable: feeling consumed by social media isn’t an accident but actually the end to which apps and websites and smartphones inevitably tend.
So why, despite all the smothering, do we keep coming back? I’ve taken occasional “fasts” from mobile apps. These generally last a few days; if I’m downright heroic, I’ll manage a week or two. But whether it’s a 48-hour “blackout” or a purposeful social media cleanse, invariably I find my way back to Twitter, back to Facebook, back to world of never-ending content.
That’s why I resonated with Matthew Malady’s recent essay for The New Yorker, “The Useless Agony of Going Offline.” Malady writes that after reading of a man who fell to his death while distracted by his phone, he decided to try a full electronic device withdrawal for 72 hours. He writes, “At midnight on New Year’s Eve, my wife and I exchanged a kiss. We used wooden spatulas to bang on some pots. Then the experiment began, and I did not look at my phone or computer for the next three days.”
But Malady reports that, rather than experiencing mental and emotional liberty, he felt listless. Without laptop or phone, he was disconnected from what he craved most: information. In his words: “I was less harried, I suppose, but I was also far less informed, and not as advanced in my understanding of all sorts of things that interested me.” For Malady, the loss of the instantaneous connection to the web was not therapeutic, but stifling: “I felt as though I were standing still rather than moving forward. And while standing still for a while can be pleasant, it’s not without its drawbacks. Instead of feeling more relaxed, I mainly felt unfulfilled.”
It seems to me that Jacobs and Malady are both right. Social media and mobile connectivity give off a kinetic thrill. There’s something genuinely satisfying about always being mere seconds away from fresh writing, or new commentary, or even the most picturesque family photos or funniest YouTube clips. Yet the thrill comes at a price. As online media both grows (through more content) and compresses (with fewer mediums), the opportunity to displace flesh-and-blood with pixels becomes more and more serious. Texting and checking Facebook can illicitly ape our God-given desire for friendship. Twitter’s 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, all-purpose commentary can convince us we’re learning a great deal when in fact we aren’t. And Instagram can rob us of the memories that we might form in the quiet moments of our lives if we weren’t so eager for the sense of approval our posted pictures can generate.
As Christians we believe that what happens in our minds is integral to what happens in our souls. That’s why the Scriptures command us to be transformed through the renewing of our minds, rather than conforming them to the image of this fallen world (Rom. 12:2). Because social media engages our minds and emotions, we have a Christian obligation to evaluate whether we engage to our benefit or to our stumbling.
To do this, we must begin by acknowledging that social media and mobile web technology may not be morally neutral. Often evangelicals talk of material things as inconsequential in and of themselves. “It’s how you use it that matters,” we say. But material things—like smartphones—can have intrinsic moral properties. As Neil Postman wrote of television in his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, “The medium is the message.” You don’t have to watch porn on your smartphone for the technology to be shaping your mind and heart in subtle, dangerous ways.
Because careful thinking and meaningful reflection are Christian disciplines, any material thing that encourages uncareful thinking or shoddy reflection ought to be viewed with suspicion. For those of you who, like me, enjoy Twitter’s ever-present cultural commentary, this is an important point. The nature of Twitter tends toward both self-glorification, with the retweets and likes, and shallowness, with content less thoughtful and fair than caustic and flippant.
Using Social Media Christianly
We would do well to heed Jacobs’s warnings; he did, after all, literally write the book on reading in our “age of distraction.” Social media’s compression of information and revolving door of immediacy undermine the kind of thoughtful, measured, and truthful speech that ought to characterize those who “speak the truth with love” (Eph. 4:15). The best way to combat this is to be aware of it, to not fall for the trap of thinking that whatever gets rewarded on social media is the right thing to say.
We should also hold everything, including our smartphones and social media accounts, with a loose grip. Our need to give up a particular digital habit is directly proportional to how unwilling we are to even entertain the idea of a break. If you’re so emotionally invested in social media that you respond with anger or frustration at the mere suggestion of logging off for a while, then you should probably interpret that as an urgent indication you need to do exactly that.
Finally, our digital lives must always exist in balance with our offline ones. This can be difficult, especially if you, like me, have a job that requires use of social media and email. But the principle is true even in a digital economy: perpetual isolation from live interaction with others not only gives sin a foothold, it also negatively affects our emotional and mental health. Human beings need a daily intake of conversation and sunlight, as Clyde Kilby wisely observed. For those whose jobs require hours of online work, we ought to weave in (intentionally scheduled) offline times.
Navigating the pleasures and perils of social media requires wisdom, reflection, and a life lived in close proximity to the means of grace God has ordained for his church. It sounds silly, but many of us would be more like Jesus if we followed Jacobs’s example. Unplugging can be helpful, but even more helpful than unplugging from the Internet is plugging into the truth of God’s Word, the beauty of God’s world, and the community of God’s people. Let’s not store all our intellectual treasures where time and chatter destroy, or trolls break in and steal.