Hitting the pause button

single contact person

I thought it would be good to write a spectacularly emotive piece today. I wanted to conjure up sentences that flowed smoothly together building up into a powerful picture.

But actually, the fact I cannot illustrates my point far better than they would.

I am tired. I am exhausted. I am doing too much. I am stopping blogging.

Yesterday was an abnormally busy day. I started writing that day’s post, on why I was giving up on my fundraising drive. And ended it writing a guest post for the God and Politics blog on the ludicrous new report out from the National Secular Society. And in between worked flat out.

That’s one day, and an unusual one at that. But I have realised I need space. I read yesterday on a slightly feminine blog about the need to keep the margins of life clear. My life has no margins.

I have tried, in these last few weeks, to find some smidgen of space to assess my busyness and what I can do about it. Except I haven’t had the time to

I have found I have not given to my relationships what I would like to give to them. I have avoided entanglement opting instead to keep things simple, superficial and easier to withdraw from. That’s why I wrote on Wednesday about the challenges I find with blogging and tweeting and the social side of social media. I don’t want to make claims that are too wide or accuse others where it is me at fault, but I have found it oppressive.

Sometimes I want the world to stop. Sometimes I want to pause the internet. I want time to think, work out how to respond, what to say and how to say it sensitively and clearly. Unfortunately I don’t have that power.

I need to spend time with people building relationships, not spend time writing about relationships.

I find it hard to know when to engage, when to step back, when to fight with all my might and when to ignore the latest controversy that would barely break the surface if it wasn’t for the response it generated.

The pressure to write a few times a week to keep the traffic levels up, to mix in stuff I know will get hits with the mellow thoughtful pieces read by 17 people. The challenge to be the spokesperson for Christian guys on relationships issues (next Sunday I think you’ll be able to hear my thoughts on singleness and the church for various local BBC stations).

It all became too much.

So I am walking away. This blog is officially on hiatus. I don’t have the power to pause the internet but I can pause writing and responding. And when I say officially I mean I have decided not to blog for a while. There’s really nothing official about it, I haven’t asked anyone’s permission. For how long I do not know, probably at least a few months, probably six. (But may change my mind if there’s something I really really must write about…)

I am taking the self imposed burden to write off my shoulders. And I hope to free up some space both in my mind and in my diary.

I’ll carry on writing, I owe a couple of people guest posts I promised months ago. And if you want me to write something I’m happy to consider it. But I have assessed my priorities, and I have decided that right now, this blog is not one of them.

I’m also contemplating a medium term break from twitter, but not quite ready to go cold turkey on that one yet!

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When I fall out of love with social media

Church pews in Tuscany

I

Are there ever days when you can’t face getting out of bed, when the trauma seems too much, when people seem difficult, circumstances challenging and it all just a little bit too much.

I have those days.

I have the days when crowds are claustrophobic and friends seem faux.

I have days when I am not very sociable, nights when I skip the party and times after church when I walk out the door without talking to anyone.

I have the good days too. Not just those when everything goes easy, when friendships are smooth when fun is effortless. But also those where it is hard.

When eye looks into eye. When words spoken meet ears listening. When hearts opened meet arms stretched.

II

I’ve been blogging for just over two years, tweeting for nearly five.

I’m neither a philistine or a fanatic of the social media variety. I like being social and sometimes I think I do a pretty good job of it.

Do a pretty good job of it? What kind of way of talking is that?!

It’s instinctive I tell people, it’s like a language, you just have to find your voice. Don’t listen to those who tell you rules on who to follow, how to tweet, the etiquette of engagement.

Social media is a world many people don’t know. I tried to explain tweeting to my sister last year and all I got was a blank stare.

Social media is a world some people claim to own. Not in a legal possession sort of way, but in a these are the ways you should engage and you’re welcome regardless, but really, if you’re going to do social media properly, then this is how you should do it. I’ve always reacted against that sort of thing.

Sometimes it is oppressive. I found myself defending myself for not following more people on twitter recently. I’ve tried to keep it to a realistic number, and my excuse is I’m pretty good at engaging beyond that, I’ll almost always reply, I’ll jump into amusing conversations, hilarious memes.

I felt it necessary to defend that I was doing twitter right. Or at least acceptably. Or maybe that my way was right.

III

I chose to blog about relationships.

I chose to write about emotions and feelings, and the way they find their way like water into the recesses of our life.

I chose to make honesty and openness the hallmarks of my writing. I chose to make myself vulnerable, to make myself known across the ether to those who do not know me.

And people read what I wrote. Not loads, but enough. My family, my friends. The odd influential blogger who might tweet about my writing. Retweets that generated traffic, comments from journalists and those the subject of my posts. Attention that I never felt I deserved but started to crave.

The shock finding that according to some algorithm this blog is ranked 5th out of all religion and belief blogs in the UK. Nice but weird. And unsustainable, at some point the new rankings will come and I’ll tumble off that perch.

The cost of my hallmarks was each post got harder to write. Vulnerability cuts deep. I had exposed each layer and to take the next off was painful. Writing about fear, about shame, about doubt, about past experiences or lack thereof. Writing about hopes and dreams and fears and anxiety. And fears.

IV

Walking into church after one of those posts was always hard. When I say I find going to church hard. And then walking through the doors the next day.

I tell myself if I’ve helped some people grapple a bit better with their own struggles with church, if I’ve provided an ounce of hope to those unable to see the light, then that’s worth it.

V

I never hesitate before opening up twitter to share my latest thoughts, join in whatever conversation is the topic of the day, tweet links to my latest post. I only pause a moment before making my most vulnerable statements.

I’ll spend evenings when I don’t feel like going out browsing twitter jumping into and out of conversations, commentating on the latest TV, on whether or not I should watch another episode of Breaking Bad. When I leave church early I’ll banter with people I do not know. I joke in ways I wouldn’t normally. Not in real life.

It’s not like real life.

Yes I said it. Shoot me down. I don’t think social media is real life. It’s a construct, it’s a facade. It has elements of reality mediated through technology and distance that can be great.

I enjoy it, sometimes I love it. I’ve met people I would never have otherwise, and kept up friendships that might have waned. I’ve learnt and I have grown. I’ve had in depth conversations with people I’ve never met.

But I think we ask of it too much.

It is not the same as the person sat before you. The eyes that look into eyes, the words and the silence that speak compassion. The hug at the end of a conversation. Social media hasn’t learnt how to transmute a hug.

I’ve jumped the shark. Any suggestion I might know what I’m on about gone. Any social media credibility abandoned. I don’t think my Klout score will ever recover.

VI

It’s not only the how but the what. Not only how you engage in social media or blogging that is focused through an informal never quite agreed on set of norms. But also what views are valid. What is acceptable, what will be met with nods of approval, affirming responses.

I know I can write that stuff.

Sometimes I’ve shied away from topics because it might lose me credibility. The people I want to like what I write might not like me if I said this about that, or that about this.

The feeling that my words need to speak for themselves. Because they are what I leave.

VII

When I think about the people I love the most. Those closest to me. My family and my best friends.

It is not their words that I value. It’s not their clever phrases or ability to find humorous words to add into Christian book titles.

I have a friend who is annoyingly good at cutting to the heart of situations, of getting to grips with what’s really going on. But that only works when I’m looking into their eyes.

When I think about a community that cares I think of people around me. Those I see and know and am able to touch. Those in real life. Sure social media can give me a boost. It can be loving, it can be kind, it can be compassionate.

But I don’t think it will ever be more than a bolt on to the community of people I call my friends. And if it becomes more than that maybe I’m not giving enough to my friends. Those who I can give a hug to.

My love/hate relationship with social media

At the end of church, after meetings, when I surface from the tube, the first thing I do is check my phone. Sometimes I’ve felt it buzzing away while I’ve sat politely ignoring it’s vibrating clarion call, but even if I haven’t, I might have missed it so I check anyway. And those times I exile myself from communication for minutes or even hours, I fervently check as soon as I can. I don’t want to be out of the loop.

Plenty of the communicative stimuli are not even directed at me. I graze through twitter browsing the frequently inane or irrelevant things others have to say. And those I do care about only occasionally have any true connection to the rest of my life.

I am at the same time connected to everyone but connecting with no one.

There’s a growing commentariat on the affect of new media on our lives: how we spend our time together huddled over our individual phones, ignoring the people we are supposedly with.

There are the critics, highlighted this week through a column in the New York Times, and then followed up in the Guardian, who make the case that the advent and avalanche of communication is making us more lonely and less able to converse.

And then there are the passionate defenders of the cause, who emphasise the social of social media. Just because it is different does not mean it is bad. It is just a new form of communicating, the telephone was not the death knell of social interaction and neither will twitter. In fact, they would argue, because of it’s scale it enables community that is not restricted by physical location.

For me, I’m stuck in the middle. I love the information that social media, particularly twitter, feed to me through a personally audited set of sources. And the fact I connect with people I otherwise wouldn’t is a bonus. But it’s not community.

The ideas behind this post would never have surfaced without social media, I first saw Simon Jenkin’s Guardian piece on twitter, then the New York Times one on facebook, and then a tweet sent my mind into overdrive. Vicky Beeching, worship leader and twitter supremo, had thrown out a couple of questions to her legion of followers (20,000 or so), and then summed it up with “Thanks for all the advice on cameras & on your favourite WordPress themes…I love the way this community works! #HoorayForSocialMedia”. (Caveat: I think Vicky Beeching is great, her tweet just got me thinking, and I guess having a big following poses many challenges of its own.)

First reaction: if I had 20,000 followers I’d get pretty good feedback to questions I asked. It’s not social media winning here, it’s celebrity.

Second reaction: this isn’t community, it’s a bunch of people who for short moments of time alight on topics of shared interest.

Third reaction: if I had 20,000 followers I’d have to put in a tonne of effort to maintain engagement with them.

If I assess my use of social media as a source of media then I judge it with one set of criteria, and if I see it as a social forum I use another. They come out with two quite different results.

And that got me thinking even deeper. Maybe I do social media wrong, maybe if I’m to really get the social part of it I need to engage more with it, talk to people more, respond more, build connections, give and not just take. But really, as much as I enjoy the eclectic range of conversations that I can become absorbed in, the question I am reaching to bring to some sort of conclusion, is: to what end am I working? Am I deepening relationships or avoiding them?

I hear stories of people striking up conversation with someone, asking about some aspect of their life they recall from prior interaction only to realise they have never spoken before and the information has only been gleaned through loitering on their facebook page.

I said that the telephone has not killed social interaction. But I don’t really like the telephone. I use it, and I think it is hugely useful, but if I never had to have another telephone call I wouldn’t be upset. And having proper conversations on the phone in public just seems odd to me, I’ll sit down with a cup of tea on the sofa if I’ve got to maintain contact with those I otherwise would not see.

Before I go searching out more relationships I want to prioritise those that I am already engaged in. I will always opt for time spent with people, because time matters. It gives the room for silence, the space for posture to convey meaning, the scope for openness and vulnerability. When you spend time with people it’s not just the things that you say that matter, it is your presence. It is the fact that you cared enough to trail through the rain to see them. It’s not just the bottle of wine you share but the words that flow from stoic compassion. In the immediacy of twitter a moment is all you have. The movement of interactions that form a relationship are lost among myriad competing claims.

For me at least, social media is about me. I’m in it for the information it will give me. I’m in it for the followers and the retweets. The flattening of access that benefits those of us on the ground floor. And that means I’ve got to be very cautious about how I use it. I have to censor myself to prevent the nefarious elements coming to the fore.

But hey, as we so often fall back to, we’re all different: what’s a challenge for me does not mean it is a challenge for you.

And maybe that is true. Yet too often it is a convenient excuse to avoid having to address hard truths. I think it’s the contemporary introvert/extrovert debate. If you’re an introvert that doesn’t give you an excuse from avoiding making new friends. And if you’re an extrovert that’s not a reason to avoid finding depth with a few people. We’re all different, but the challenges we face are frequently the same.

How do we balance the growth of community, in any form – online or in person, with ensuring that we’re going deeper?