Having recently hit the big 4-0, I’m starting to have more and more days where I embrace my inner grouchy old curmudgeon. Picture me with arms flailing wildly as I yell at pesky kids to get offa my lawn. Moaning about the noisy students next door, wondering whether 9.30 is too early to call the Council to complain about the music, and wishing at least they’d play some Springsteen or U2 instead of the endless doof-doof. But every now and then I catch myself thinking that way and wonder, ‘When did this happen? How did this happen?’ I’d rather hoped to stave off being a cantankerous middle-aged git for a few more years yet. And I’d rather hoped to avoid slightly stuffy old man expressions like ‘I’d rather hoped’.
In the fight to stay young, one effective strategy to assure yourself that you’re still hip, still with it (whatever the heck ‘it’ is these days), is to embrace the newest technology. Today, that obviously means embracing social media. Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, the Twitter, Snapcrap – being relevant seems to require being plugged into it all. Shouldn’t a Christian be leveraging these technologies to spread the gospel just a little bit further? Shouldn’t a normal, caring citizen of the world in 2017 be keeping up with people via his ‘socials’ in as many ways as possible? At the very least, don’t go posting something on your blog where you rail about the evils of technology. That’s the surest way to cement your reputation as an out-of-touch killjoy.
So I guess this post is a marker in the sand for me: I hereby define myself as a rancorous, surly, middle-aged stick-in-the-mud. Because I’m here to tell you why I’ve basically given up on Facebook, and while I think you probably should too.
First, I should acknowledge the irony. You’ve probably come here because you saw this link on Facebook. It’s how most people end up visiting my blog, and I guess it’s how most people end up visiting most blogs. So yep, maybe I’m biting the hand that feeds me.
Second, I haven’t given up Facebook entirely. I would have if I could have, but I’ve worked out that my current job really requires me to keep an active account (to organise events, to keep the logistics of my ministry moving, to communicate with students – and yes, to share blog posts). Basically, Facebook has established a beachhead in my life and won’t be surrendering its hard-won ground any time soon. But I’m fighting back, marshalling my forces and pushing the Zuckerberg Offensive back as far as possible. I use it as little as possible (i.e. hardly at all).
Thirdly, obviously I have to admit that Facebook itself is completely neutral – neither good nor evil – and can therefore be used to accomplish all kinds of good things. And it may be that lots of what follows says more about me than about Facebook. And you might even smell a whiff of exaggeration in some of these points. But I hope you can recognise the real question in everything that follows. The question is not: Is Facebook evil? but: Is Facebook the best use of my time? Would things be better if I gave it up?
So here are my reasons for quitting Facebook, in no particular order. And by the way, I’m not actually recommending that you quit Facebook. I don’t know enough about your life to recommend that. But I’m pretty certain you should at least consider it. If enough of these reasons apply to you, then draw your own conclusions.
I have a wife
I confess that, if I were single, I’m not sure I would have ditched Facebook so easily. Over the last six months, my wife has updated me on several people who’ve had babies, gotten engaged or married, changed jobs, had avocado on toast one day, or experienced some other important and life-changing event. She’s also been able to share important events in our own lives. And let’s face it, she’s definitely the better half of the operation; people want to hear from her more than they want to hear from me. So maybe Facebook serves a good function for people who are a little more isolated, and I have the luxury of letting someone else do my social media dirty work, filtering the boring stuff and passing on the good stuff.
Then again, I somehow managed to keep up with the life events of the people who mattered to me before 2007. Do I need Facebook for this? If Facebook disappeared tomorrow, would I find other ways to keep updated? Is the cost worth the benefit?
The world doesn’t need to know what I had for breakfast, what pithy observation I made about today’s news headlines, what I think of that local sports team, or how often I went to the gym this week
I think Facebook can gently give us an inflated sense of self-importance. I start to assume that people need to know what I’m up to, or what I think.
Again, sharing our lives (however remotely) can be a good thing; but how much of our lives do we really need to share in this kind of way? How much am I enriching others by sharing these things? Would it be better, and healthier all round, if we were more content to plug away in whatever tiny corner of the world God has placed us in, loving and serving a small circle of people well rather than trying to push our market share of (fairly vacuous and ineffectual) connection and influence?
I figure that, if I have something actually worth saying to the world, I can say it in a little more detail in a blog, or in a lot more detail in a book. Not everyone writes, but everyone can find other ways of saying the things that really matter.
I’m tired of the comparison game
As so many have pointed out, social media brings the terrible temptation to curate a fake life. We tend to share only those things that we know (or hope) others will find interesting or likable.
The trouble is that our Real Lives aren’t as nice or as manageable as our Virtual Lives. I can’t delete those angular parts of my personality as easily as I can delete a post that got no likes or that someone found offensive. I can’t delete the mistakes I made yesterday. (Jesus pretty much can, but that’s another story.) Our real lives are messy. But as you sit there living your messy life, looking at other people’s carefully curated Virtual Lives, the green-eyed monster bubbles up.
You’re sitting at your computer, feeling bored or feeling overworked or feeling sad or feeling blah, and you absent-mindedly start perusing your News Feed. Before you know it, you see insightful observations you could never have made. You see people getting off their backsides and exercising. You see people on glamorous overseas holidays, or enjoying their gorgeous children, or accomplishing something, or praying for something (or telling you that they’re praying for something), or sharing an amusing anecdote. And your life is just barely chugging along. So is theirs, but you’d never know based on what they share online.
I’m yet to read a post that says, “Binging on Netflix yet again instead of investing time in my family!” “Spent all night jumping from one stupid YouTube video to the next instead of reading something that would actually nourish my soul!” “Eating junk food again because I can’t be stuffed to make something healthy!” “Standing in a queue with nothing to do but skim my News Feed in hopes that something will relieve the total boredom!” “Staying in bed all day because I can’t face the world!” Life has to look exciting, or at least interesting. And when your life looks exciting and interesting (even if it isn’t), it tempts me (a) to make my life look equally exciting, even though it isn’t, and (b) to resent you and your exciting life. And for all I know, that’s all happening at the exact same moment as you’re sitting there resenting me and my exciting life.
Facebook tells me that glory is found in what looks or sounds good outwardly. God tells me that glory can be found in the smallest of things, even if no one sees (except for him): praying behind closed doors; getting up to one of your kids in the middle of the night; sitting at your desk and working hard, even though it’s mundane; an unseen act of generosity to a needy friend; writing someone a private note that no one else gets to ‘like’ but which actually makes a real difference to that one person; caring for a sick spouse, parent or friend. Et cetera.
Three times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that our Father in heaven “sees what is done in secret” and will reward us for doing it to please him (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). Nothing on Facebook is done in secret; the whole point of Facebook is to be un-secret. It encourages me to seek your approval rather than God’s. Maybe that’s just me, but I doubt it. The comparison game is death.
The subtle control of new media
When the original Mac computer was about to be released, Steve Jobs was asked whether he wanted to do market research to help perfect the product. He said no. When asked why, he replied: ‘Because people don’t know what they want until we give it to them.’[i]
That’s a highly revealing statement from a technological genius. Jobs had put his finger on a key aspect of the technological revolution of which Facebook is a part. Technology like computers and Facebook don’t sit there waiting for us to decide what we’ll do with them; they invade our space and tell us what we should do with them. As Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium is the message.
I’ve only read a small portion of Tony Reinke’s new book, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, but I was struck by a quote from theologian Oliver O’Donovan. Speaking about new digital technologies, O’Donovan said: “The tools set the agenda. A tool of communication is a tool for communicating something. … Media don’t just lie around passively, waiting for us to come along and find them useful for some project we have in mind. They tell us what to do and, more significantly, what to want to do. There is a current in the stream, and if we don’t know how to swim, we shall be carried by it.”[ii]
I fear that the current of Facebook has carried me for too long, and I need to start swimming against the stream.
I have about ten actual friends and would rather not pretend that I have 1000
Actually I’d very much like to pretend I have 1000 friends, 1000 people who can’t do without me. But that’s foolish and sinful: I need to be needed. But how many people can really need one little person like me?
It goes back to the comparison game. If I can do a good job of loving my wife, my kids, my extended family, the young people connected with Christian Union, some people from my church, a handful of other families in my neighbourhood, and a small circle of old, scattered friends, surely that’s more than enough love to be going on with.
Facebook was seeping into my brain
Many was the time that I’d be sitting at the computer, having finished whatever online tasks I sat down to do, getting ready to start some actual work (writing a Bible study, preparing a talk, writing some pastoral emails, writing an article, researching part of a book, or something like that), only to find that some subliminal tractor beam drew me to type the letter ‘f’ into my browser (knowing that ‘acebook’ would automatically follow).
Why? Why did my morning feel incomplete without that quick check of my News Feed? Which, of course, wouldn’t be a quick check of my News Feed at all, because no doubt I’d be drawn into the controversy du jour, some silly argument of someone’s making. The whole thing had some kind of powerful narcotic effect on me.
I also knew I was in trouble when I started processing amusing moments or key events in my life by thinking: “Gee, that’ll make a good status update!”
I like to avoid silly arguments
Not all arguments on Facebook are silly. Lots of them are quite interesting, and some are even really helpful. I admire the people who’ve figured out how to use Facebook well. And obviously, because technology itself is neutral, it can be used for good or for evil. Praise God for the ways it can be used for good.
But you don’t need me to tell you that Facebook hardly lends itself to godly, nuanced, deep understanding. How often our buttons are pushed and we fail to interact with grace and love. How often we try really hard to comment with grace and love, and our comments are taken the wrong way.
Again, this is not a matter of good vs. bad. This is a question of better vs. best. How much did you really learn from that Facebook discussion? How much better if you took the time you spent in online discussions this past week, rolled it together, and invested it in reading a book? Or talking theology / politics / life with an actual person in your life? Or praying? Or reading the Bible? Or writing meaningful notes to someone you love? What would really bear more fruit and do more to edify? Or to put it another way…
I have better things to do
Obviously, Facebook can be used in lots of good ways. And humans have found ways to waste time for thousands of years before Facebook was invented. The question, again, is what’s best. For every good thing I can accomplish on Facebook, I’m almost certain I can accomplish something better, more eternal, more meaningful, by not using Facebook.
This John Piper quote kills me: “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.”
I have deeper things to do
As I considered letting go of Facebook several months ago, I read a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Author Cal Newport contends that being able to do ‘deep work’ – by which he means “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task” – is becoming both more important and more rare in our world. He argues that our new-look economy rewards ‘deep work’ more than ever, but that fewer and fewer people can accomplish this, simply because we live our lives in such a constant state of distraction. My paraphrase is to say that the Internet is frying our brains.
Newport goes on to claim that most people should give up social media, even though that feels counter-intuitive for people trying to influence and inform others. He argues (persuasively) that you’ll do a much better job of extending your influence if you use that time for deep work, not for the quick but shallow return offered by social media.
Newport doesn’t write as a Christian, but his insights should be of great interest to most Christians. Shouldn’t we, of all people, be desperately keen to help ourselves think deeply? Shouldn’t we cultivate the skill of going deep, so we can read the Bible properly, make time for meaty Christian books, or process what we’re hearing at church week-by-week?
Without Facebook, I’m more interested in people
This sounds counter-intuitive, right? Maybe the best thing about Facebook is keeping us up-to-date with a dispersed circle of friends, especially for someone like me who grew up in Australia but now lives in New Zealand.
But since giving up on Facebook, I find that I’m actually much more interested in people when I have real, face-to-face contact with them. I think it’s as simple as this: I don’t have the superficial sense that I know what’s happening in their life because I read their status updates, so I ask them (with genuine interest and expectation) what’s happening in their life. It might not work that way for everyone, but it works that way for me, and for a few other recovering Facebook addicts that I’ve asked.
Years ago someone told me, “Christian ministry is basically about relationships.” Facebook tempts me to feel like I’m being more relational, but I think it’s a mirage. The less time that gets sucked into its alluring vortex, the more time I should have available for real people.
[i] This is a loose paraphrase based on my recollections of an exchange recorded in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs.
[ii] Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You (Illinois: Crossway, 2017), p. 19.