On (Almost) Unplugging

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In the middle of January, I took two weeks off from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

It’s a tricky experiment when one of your jobs is managing social media, but setting all my apps to work accounts and actively avoiding Facebook’s Home button when I dropped in to schedule updates was enough to hold me back from unintentional journeys down the Internet rabbit hole. Though I missed the voices of my wise and funny friends, there were plenty of things I was grateful to leave behind — illogical bickering among strangers, comment thread rage, dramatic clickbait “news,” and incessant ads, to name a few.

If I had to describe those two almost-unplugged weeks, I’d say it felt like a fog lifting, like the voices screaming about everything wrong with the world quieted until I could hear something true again. Sometimes, I wish I could make the break permanent. Hey, I can’t fix the world, so why should I let arguing and opinions drag me down?

Today, I present two ideas I’ve held in tension since returning to the social media machine, two ideas I’m not sure how to reconcile. Perhaps you’ve struggled here too, or have some insights on surviving this constantly connected culture.

Idea One: I don’t want to be totally uninformed or let compassion fatigue set in. On one of my first days back, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed wishing everything wasn’t deadly serious, Matt Conner posted something that shifted my perspective:

“It’s one thing to need an escapist moment in the middle of a bad day — to go see a movie or binge watch a few episodes of The Office after a long week at your own place of work. It’s another entirely to wish away something deemed negative or divisive because you’re uncomfortable.

Those with the most rights are the ones who are tired talking about them.”

Or in other words, to say “I can’t take any more negativity” is a luxury statement. My “negativity” is another’s everyday struggle. How can I turn away from the real hurting human behind the scared or angry tweet?

“We’re living in a society in which facts are thrown away, yet somehow we’re already growing “tired” of being informed?”

Idea Two: How much information is too much? When do the voices grow so loud I can barely form a thought for myself? Some, like writer Alan Jacobs, suggest massively scaling back on the quick bursts of information and hot takes to take a long view:

“On social media today everyone is in a state of high alarm all the time. Which leads me to something I didn’t mention explicitly in my year in technology post: my efforts to get onto a longer news frequency…

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion.”

All this leaves me wondering if our breakdown in honest dialogue and simple civility might be born in that constant “high alarm,” this stream of panicked noise all around us. It’s one thing to be informed, but now it seems we have to be informed AND have an opinion five minutes after anything happens—be first to speak, make some noise, amplify. And before you know it, it’s hard to tell which voice is yours and which is the sum of the rumblings all around.

I am grateful for the space and community we’ve cultivated here, for slow takes and careful thought, for Civil Language and the via media. And now I’m wondering, how can we successfully live in this tension?  How can we keep informed about the harm done to our neighbors, stay humble and alert, but take in the flood of information without drowning? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Profile photo of Jen Rose Yokel

Jen was born and raised in central Florida, but now lives in the strange land of southern New England. Her words have appeared in TS Poetry’s Every Day Poems, CCM Magazine, and other publications, and she recently released her first poetry collection Ruins & Kingdoms. Some of her favorite things include used bookstores, good coffee, messing about in the kitchen, and local adventures with her husband Chris.


7 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Jonny Jimison

    Jonny Jimison

    @jonnyjimison

    Great reflections. Here’s my perspective:

    When I have the entire world at my fingertips, I feel like a cyborg with an implant – I can’t turn off the constant stream of noise, information, commerce and interaction. When I deliberately delete apps and restrict access, I find that I can actually think coherently, focus on what’s in front of me instead of where the next click could take me, and live my life without a piece of my mind lodged away in my phone or tablet.

    Jen, your reflections seem born out of the dysfunctional, politically-charged atmosphere on social media that has built to a crescendo over the last few months – important things to consider. But I’m suggesting a bigger picture: for the sake of my own health (mental, spiritual, AND physical health) I try to approach the internet not like an implant that is grafted into me, but as a tool to pull out and then put away, a building to visit and then leave, a book to read and then shut.

    Of course, there are no shortage of arguments for being plugged in all the time. So am I being shortsighted here? Or am I on to something? Any thoughts?

  2. Profile photo of Daniel Rechlin

    Daniel Rechlin

    @danrechlin

    @jonnyjimison, you show your bravery by being the “first to speak.”  I think I’m in agreement with you about how to approach the internet (one might say) conservatively.  The conundrum faced here reminds me of problems like Gnosticism, (did somebody else talk about this along those lines at some point?  Maybe I did in a previous comment somewhere.) only I guess here we’d be dealing with the tension between the physical and the ‘electronic.’  To me, it seems that to address this you have to deal with the things that are common to both sides; things like time, identity, emotion (as Mr. Jacobs wrote about above).  I think a lot of the struggle we encounter is when we live like these only exist in one or the other realms, realizing too late that we can’t so easily separate the two.  Time spent on Facebook, regardless of how full it seems when we’re there, is time, real time, spent, regardless of how little else we are physically doing besides poking our phones.  The person we let ourselves become when we’re connected with others online impacts the person we are when we see people face-to-face.  I’m not even sure if I’m thinking about it the right way, but I think a consciousness of the commonality of these kinds of things will go a long way towards finding that middle road.

    One last thought: would it be worth trying to use this to reverse the direction we are so prone to think in?  Instead of being a constantly-alarmed person online and letting that seep into your arm’s-length living, might we instead attempt to inhabit the peace that’s been given to us, and let that seep into our online existence?  etc. etc.  Now I’ll stop talking, as the in-person me would have done long ago.

  3. Profile photo of David Michael Bruno

    David Michael Bruno

    @guynameddave

    Thanks, Jen. This topic has been on my heart and mind for so long. The last, oh I don’t know, about 3 weeks have had me in a near panic, scrolling through Twitter and glancing at headlines. It cannot be healthy.

    Your point about being fast to read and express an opinion is so good. @Pete and other Rabbit Room lights have been great at slowing us all down, reading books and thinking about movies over an extended period of time. Stepping out of the frantic pace of online life might be one of the most soul-refreshing and even revolutionary actions any of us can take in our times.

  4. Profile photo of Carrie Givens

    Carrie Givens

    @carrieg

    I read that Alan Jacobs piece and was struck by it. I loved that he gave some examples of longer-form media to start with. Lore Ferguson Wilbert has also talked a lot recently about turning to print media and long-form media to get her news. I’ve been starting the process myself–while I’m still digital, I find myself looking for articles that are critical analysis rather than news bursts. It’s been helpful. Yet I still scroll through Twitter like @guynameddave sometimes, frantically reading headlines and the threads of tweets in response to whatever the latest thing is.

    I watched the first couple of episodes of the new 24 show some evening last week, and was reminded how frenetic and high-pressure that show is. From the first beeping of the clock my pulse quickened, and I finished two episodes with my heart pounding, wondering how I would fall asleep. Last night, when I happened upon an ugly tweet and its thread of ugly replies, I realized I was feeling the same physical symptoms as the end of an episode of 24. I turned off social media for the rest of the evening, and slept well.

    It’s a challenge and a tension–and I completely agree with you on the complexity of doing it when you run social media accounts for a living. But I appreciate @MattConner‘s words about the difference between pausing for a time for sanity and checking out. That’s helpful.

  5. Profile photo of Rachel Donahue

    Rachel Donahue

    @racheldonahue

    I, too, decided to start the year off by unplugging for a week. I needed drastic measures to simplify our family’s life and refocus on our values and priorities. As it happened, that week of quiet space was what got me writing again and brought me to the Rabbit Room. 🙂

    When I saw your article, I was honestly hoping you would have answers for these questions! It’s good to hear from others who are struggling with this tension. I personally swing back and forth between wanting to stick my head in a hole and ignore what’s outside the four walls of our home (we certainly have enough drama here as it is), and being connected and engaged in what’s going on in the lives of our friends and family around the world, not to mention current events and trends. I will say, though, it seems the more time I spend unplugged and interacting with humans face-to-face lends perspective when I engage online again. I’ve got to find a way to keep a healthy balance.

    Also, the number of pressing needs we’re faced with through social media is overwhelming. We don’t want to become hardened to that, but we don’t have enough emotional energy to feel all of them and we don’t have enough resources to make a significant difference in any of them. Unplugging removes some of the emotional burden, and the quiet allows us to seek God’s direction in how He would have us to steward the resources He’s given us. We can’t do it all, but we can seek daily faithfulness to the One who has no limits of time or space or wealth or energy. We heard what He did with the loaves and fishes…

  6. Profile photo of Jen Rose Yokel

    Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    @jonnyjimison This thought, yes! “I try to approach the internet not like an implant that is grafted into me, but as a tool to pull out and then put away, a building to visit and then leave, a book to read and then shut.”  So good. You are definitely onto something with that idea. We do indeed have a unique opportunity to be informed, but healthy boundaries are necessary so we can be any good in the world.

    @danrechlin The parallel with Gnosticism you bring up is interesting, and yes, a good way to think about this. Could you say more? I love the thought of letting our peace seep into our online existence and how we speak to others in that realm.

    @guynameddave I was thinking about you while putting this together. Might’ve referenced back to your Civil Language posts while sorting this out. 🙂 And yes, I’m glad The Rabbit Room is a place where we can talk about things after we’ve had a while to digest. It’s more suited to my pace of thinking.

    @carrieg Your comments about 24 are so interesting! As a totally opposite but similar example, the other night Chris and I went to see Paterson at a small theater. After spending almost 2 hours living in that slow paced film about an ordinary life, with no earth-shaking crises or extreme danger, when I stepped outside the world felt so loud. My natural inclination IS to check out, so I’m trying to learn better habits. When it comes to news, I’ve found AllSides.com to be super helpful. When a new outrage piques my interest, I can go there to find multiple sources on the same subject and get a clearer picture of what I’m reading.

    @rachedonahue Well hey, glad you’re here! 🙂 Yes, taking short time off from the stream of information definitely helps with refocusing. Very wise thoughts too on the impossibility of feeling every need. I wish I had the answers too, but I think I’m starting to understand what works for me. It’s helpful to know others feel that tension too.

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