Smaller world, bigger picture

This advent I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. I abstained from browsing to those sites, I let tweetdeck go dormant. I took a break from social media. It wasn’t a complete abstinence, once or twice I decided I needed to tweet for work, and I responded to a couple of event invitations. But for the best part of a month I heard about engagements from colleagues, births from friends, and asked them to add a proxy ‘like’ on my behalf. I’m sure I missed out on a dozen controversies and left answered innumerable buzzfeed quizzes which would have told me which Charles Dickens character I was, or the like.

There was no great noble purpose in this departure, and writing this review makes it seem much grander than it was. It started with the recognition that I needed space. I needed room to think and my mind was too crowded with the trivialities of those I barely knew, the announcements of those I cared about, and the worries of a world that stirs heartache with every fresh recurrence of violence, war and trauma. When I explain to friends (those I see in day to day life) that I would occasionally spend an evening on the sofa engaged in a couple of conversations on Twitter they look at me with a combination of astonishment and amusement – with friends that don’t tweet, and most of them don’t, it feels like an alien world.

I have no gripe with social media, I often love it, on the way into work each morning (apart from this last month) I check Twitter, find out what’s going on in the world, send out some trivial tweets, some articles I think worth reading, and respond to the latest nonsense in my feed.

But it was drowning out the world I walked in each day. It was distracting me, sometimes entertaining me, often dulling me to the people I spent my time with. I’d be in the middle of conversations and browsing Twitter, not even doing the semi-legitimate conversation type thing, but the unfocussed dispersal of my attention until it was wafer thin. I say semi-legitimate because I’m a fool for drifting from one conversation to the next at the best of times, not allowing one to hold my attention.

I’ve been about two days behind the news for most of December, and I learnt to be okay with that. I’ve missed seeing what my friends are doing on Facebook more than what’s going on in the rest of the world. And that represents what I learnt this month, I focussed my attention on a smaller world and I got a bigger picture of a world that has more depth than can ever be fully explored.

This isn’t intended to ape Andy Crouch’s post lent review which I read months ago and had in mind as I deleted apps on my phone. But I returned to it and read it again, and found that having written all of the above, he made the same point but with far greater eloquence:

“Our screens, increasingly, pay a great deal of attention to us. They assure us that someone, or at least something, cares. The mediated world constantly falls over itself to tell us, often in entirely automated ways, that we matter every bit as much as we secretly hope we do. … an utterly dedicated, ingratiating concierge for our preferred future. The unmediated world does not flatter us in this way.

“So the real gift of my absence from screens was that nothing was paying attention to me. … And in the absence of that constant digital flattery, feeling much smaller and less significant, I was more free to pay attention to the world I am called to love.”

An utterly dedicated concierge for our preferred future. When we think of technology taking the place of humanity that’s the problem. Not that it can’t do the job, but that it can do it too well. We live imperfect lives and the idea of programmed automation that fulfils what we might think we want it to do is the vision of science fiction and it is the reality of the illusion we too often live in.

We think we know what our preferred future is and we have tools at our disposal to curate a life that as closely resembles that as possible. We go to concerts and spend most of it viewing it through a four inch screen as we record for double digit views on YouTube the demonstration of what an amazing time we’re having. We see incredible sunsets and filter them so frequently that it becomes a novelty to tag that we’re not. Our methods of distribution are designed for distortion.

I have friends today that I wouldn’t have were it not for social media, and I’ve stayed in touch with people on other parts of the planet I would never have dreamed with keeping up with otherwise. Social media broadens my horizons, it provokes me, it infuriates me, it stimulates me. Heck, I wouldn’t have ever started blogging if I hadn’t seen on Twitter that someone had written something that annoyed me.

I needed to shut it down for a while. I needed to step away from the delusion of a life with almost infinite social connections and the lives of others that I could only feign to share.

I needed to nurture the friendships of people I saw all the time but don’t know as well as I could. I needed to give all of myself to their attention.

Loch Ossian

I also needed to think. I needed time to percolate some of the thoughts in my head and allow them to settle. The constant flow of new information, ideas, opinions was flying through my mind, nothing had time to form and linger – it would get shoved to the bottom, rooted and stuck, there to be ignored unless needed in a pub quiz, or otherwise thrown to the side, discarded along with the latest trivial quiz. It might have been an exhilarating ride but it was like a rollercoaster at a theme park. Fun, but you end up where you began just rather shaken up.

I’m heading home for Christmas as I write this. It’s late on the evening of the 23rd of December and for the next few days the insanity of work busyness will be replaced by a non-stop succession of family events, many fun, many desirable, many exactly what I need. I won’t be heading straight to Twitter when the clock strikes twelve tomorrow night. On Christmas Day I’ll be with my family, playing with kids, talking to my sisters and my parents. Opening presents, eating food, doing things that build relationships.

There is time enough for enough relationships. If I were to spend all my time on a few instead of many I don’t think I would be poorer. Maybe I’m in the fortunate position of having a lot of people with whom I could spend time. Maybe I’m blessed to be able to spend my time seeing them. But maybe it’s also time to invest in those relationships that matter most.

Concluding this the other side of Christmas Day that all sounds incredibly smug. Until late on Boxing Day when I started browsing online sales my phone has mostly stayed out of reach, left at home, or taken only to capture photos. I’m also exhausted and ready for time on my own, too many people – even those I love – leaves this introvert in need of a cold dark space. Juggling four small children (sometimes almost literally) would leave anyone out of breath.

When contact is mediated via technology the choice to opt out is ever present and easy to oblige. I browsed through Twitter for the first time in nearly a month and decided to leave the app off my phone for a little longer. It’ll return, but it cannot be a convenient social outlet when wanted and then discarded when challenging.

And yet, as I contemplated replying to a message from a week ago I refrained as I didn’t want that to be my first tweet to fill the void. The temptation to curate a life in public view that is a tableau of the best moments is ever present. The temptation to let people into my life when I’m at my best is a trap not restricted to the online world, it’s a lure that lies around almost every corner. The challenge is to let people push you to be the best you can be without that creating an artifice that defrauds even yourself.

Screens lie, but sometimes in their lies they betray the truth. Lives also lie, but in their living can turn that lie into reality. The problems that exist within a life curated by social media are only a mask for problems that go far deeper. If we are reluctant to let the world see who we really are, then we are probably also reluctant to let anyone see who we are. If we are manufacturing a world through instragramable lunches and tweetable statuses, who is the person that we are when we enjoy those things with others?

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