30Jan

Why I Swore Off Social Networking… and Came Right Back Again

Last week, the words wouldn’t come. I tried, planting myself in my computer chair and waging blinking contests with the cursor while time ticked away. I tucked a notepad and pen into my gym bag. I took inspiring books along on errands, just in case the orbits of opportunity and creativity finally decided to align while I was out.

They didn’t.

It wasn’t that daily life wasn’t providing enough material. On the contrary, my brain was wound so tightly with big decisions, big goals, big feelings, and the big events in loved ones’ lives that I felt like the first scattered trembles of a supernova. Writing is usually how I ward off eminent explosion, but the words wouldn’t come… and to be honest, my break from blogging felt a lot less like spelunking my way to clear-mindedness and a lot more like somersaulting through space.

~~~

One of the Big Thoughts I’ve been working through this month has to do with online community. I’ve always hated reading Facebook statuses like “I’m sick of Facebook” or tweets proclaiming “So long, Twitterverse.” Besides the obvious irony of swearing off social media ON SOCIAL MEDIA, those kinds of statuses make me feel personally rebuffed, as if those friends had grown disgusted with the idea of staying in touch.

You can understand then why I cringed so violently a couple of weeks ago when I caught myself telling Dan, “I’m thinking of quitting social networks.” I could not have felt more hypocritical in that moment, but I had just spent twenty minutes reading up on the newest controversy everyone was talking about, and the end result was the same gritty black aura of criticism and outrage that so often descends on me when I click the Facebook logo. Wait, he said WHAT? How can she possibly think that? Oh no you didn’t just go there. Why would they think anyone wants to know THAT? What the hell…? I can’t believe…! Don’t get me started… etc. etc. forever and ever amen.

The truth was, I no longer liked myself on Facebook. I hated my immediate impulse to form judgments about my friends based on a parade of links, likes, and one-sentence status updates, and it stung to realize how much time I could lose in a day chasing down controversy. Beyond that, I realized how much of my self-worth I was hanging on that same haphazard system—tallying up likes, strategizing the best times of day to post links, and even brainstorming blog topics based on how much buzz they might be able to generate. I was basing my online interactions around seeking and withholding approval, and it was poisoning my creativity at its relational heart.

So I told Dan I was considering giving it all up—deleting my accounts, turning off blog comments, disabling social media plug-ins, and just creating in happy isolation. No more crowding my mind with others’ opinions. No more reliance on instant validation. If I were no longer networking, I would be free to publish my writing and then just walk away; the idea sounded glorious and not at all like previous friends’ decisions to swear off social media. After all, I wasn’t going to post about it.

~~~

Last week, I quietly stayed offline, alone with my Big Thoughts and the space to write about them without agenda… but the words wouldn’t come. What I’d thought would feel like freedom ended up feeling more like alienation, and it wasn’t validation I was missing; it was interconnectedness. It was Hey, I saw you’re having a hard week; can we bring over dinner? and Don’t worry; my babies went through that stage too, and I promise you’ll survive, and Wow, I never would have thought of things like that. I didn’t miss the controversy, but I keenly felt the lack of others’ worlds, your worlds, broadening and inspiring my own. Say what they will about how friendships conducted online are pale shadows of those lived face-to-face, social media protestors can’t explain away the very real and lasting value it has brought to my life.

In my disillusionment over the negative aspects of social networking, I had lost sight of the positive, and my week of distance sent me sailing straight into this: Encouragement matters, whether it is offered across a coffee table or across a series of IP addresses. If “encouragement” is too churchy a word (is it?), swap it out with “positive connectedness” or “affirming relationships” or simply “friendship.” The point is that what we have here counts, and while stats and retweets need to take on a much less important role in my life, that doesn’t mean the people behind them need to as well.

Author Emily Wieranga’s blogging resolutions ring especially relevant on this side of the to-leave-or-not-to-leave debate, where I know so clearly what I don’t want but so little of what I do:

“never write just for the sake of writing…
never not write out of fear of not having anything to say…
never comment on another person’s blog simply in the hopes of having them read mine…
continue to keep the comments section open, as a way to spark conversation”
(You can read the rest over on her blog.)

I suspect I’m signing myself up for a year-long, if not life-long struggle to find the balance between caring about the people in my community and not letting their opinions—even the validating ones—define me. I want to find that slim ribbon of perspective that lets me value your thoughts and learn from them and even catch ablaze on them without being consumed in the process. On the other end of it, I need to root my purpose for writing in something far deeper and more fundamental to my identity than what kind of reaction it will generate while still being sensitive to all of you who read it. Basically, my mindset needs to work on its fine motor skills.

~~~

Back in the early days of blogging (I started eleven years ago, which now seems positively prehistoric), I don’t remember any debate over authenticity vs. boundaries, apart from Dooce losing her job and advising the rest of us to “BE YE NOT SO STUPID.” In fact, I don’t remember any drama at all over post content; my blogging friends and I wrote 1) to flex our creative muscles, and 2) to be a community. We would get together at coffee shops and read our favorite entries out loud, then go back to our dorm rooms and blog about it. Some of us sported Blogger t-shirts. It was pretty awesome.

Today, blogging has the potential to be so much more—income, book-fodder, recognition—and it’s easy to absorb the idea that those outcomes are the reason we’re here. The pressure is on to come up with exceptionally written, SEO-friendly posts in our signature styles for our chosen niches with enough punch to go viral and enough relatability to attract loyal followers (ideally those in the publishing industry). Blog traffic isn’t just a perk, it’s the point, and though all our efforts are focused on readership, we miss out on community.

That’s both why I decided to quit social networking and why I came right back again. Here, as in my face-to-face world, relationships mean nothing without authenticity, and authenticity has no strength apart from relationships. Blogging simply doesn’t work for me without both factors. As appealing and praiseworthy as the life of a technological hermit may seem at times, it isn’t the route I’m meant to go, and now that I’m acknowledging that, now, finally, the words are coming back.

~~~

How do you feel about social networking? Do you think it’s necessary for a successful creative life? 

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9 comments

  1. This is something I’ve been thinking and talking with a few close friends about a lot lately.

    I enjoyed taking December away from Facebook. It was a refreshing time. However, I missed all of these connections that I wouldn’t talk to much otherwise… cycling friends in Dallas, cycling friends in Orlando, the Bassets in Italy, coffee friends in Austin, my brother in Atlanta, etc. Picking up the phone is possible, yes, but who does that any more? I also really *must* use it to promote my cycling education classes. So, I had to find a balance.

    Coming back to Facebook in January, I realized I needed to scale back on a few things. I hate how easily my mood shifted based on that red square. First, I needed to be more intentional about my time. I was getting totally addicted.. checking early in the morning, pulling my phone out and browsing at any down moment, checking late at night…. wondering if there’d be one more LIKE or not! Ugh. Second, I need to leave it off my phone. I don’t have enough self control to not check it one more time and see if anyone has said anything.

    I’m still struggling on the balance, but I’m trying to make incremental changes to not let social media control my mood so much. Some of that has been removing a few people from my feed, and some of that has been the time & place limitations.

    You’re totally right, though.. I don’t remember having these kinds of conversations when we were simply blogging.

  2. I’ve missed you and I’m SO glad you’re back. 🙂 Yes, I understood your struggle. I too tend to go dark when things in my online world get to be too much. But the truth is, I do the same in my “real world”. Life just gets overwhelming sometimes and it’s OK to take a break. Something that is freeing me right now is to do online what is good for me TODAY. I don’t have make any grand sweeping resolutions about how much time I spend or how deep I take things to heart or who feels safe FOREVER. Just today is enough. I can create a good, happy online life TODAY. It has relieved me of so much stress. 🙂 I wish I could meet you for coffee to swap blog inspirations then dash home and write. That would be fantastic. 🙂

  3. Social media is definitely something that we’re all muddling through together and what’s appropriate or healthy for one person may not be for another. I was getting to the point where I hated and yet was addicted to Facebook all at the same time. I found the website design itself chaotic and overwhelming and I was also getting more and more creeped out by Facebook’s privacy policies and how basically, we, the users, are a product to be bought and sold to advertisers. So I deleted my FB account entirely. I’m still on Twitter and Pinterest. It’s definitely not the same but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much. The people I really want to talk to, I still talk to. I’m lucky that my family all live fairly close so we see each other regularly. My friends care enough about me to call or email about a group gathering that was otherwise planned on facebook. And I appreciate that greatly. I know it’s extra work for them. But not being on Facebook is a mentally healthier option for me. Plus I prefer the deeper discussions that I seem to have with people via email. Some acquaintances will fall by the wayside, no doubt, but I’m happier having a smaller group of close friends anyway.

  4. This is SO good and SO true. I realize that social media can be a little like caffeine, I’m always wanting to pop back in for a tiny shot of affirmation or news. And I thought about giving it up (or something) but didn’t, for the same reasons you mentioned. I find that overall it really does enhance real life interaction, for me anyway. I have nice friends, I guess.

    I also get what you are saying about when people leave. I have even kind of gotten my feelings hurt (and I”m thick skinned) when FB is the main way I stay in touch with certain ppl I really love, and they leave saying, “FB is a waste of time and I’m leaving to be a better homemaker, ta-ta, call me sometime!” Well fine then, go scrub your potty, I guess it’s not that important to be in touch with me after all!

    (Oh my, did I just really admit that out loud?!)

  5. It is almost cryptic to read the words your brain generates and your fingers communicate as they almost always so clearly narrate the unending puzzle circulating through my brain on a regular basis.

    I noticed your absence and prayed that it would be temporary as I know that my life is sweeter when you’re in it–even though it is a ‘virtual’ presence. What draws me to you and to your blog is the authenticity of the woman that God is creating you to be. As you wrestle with the past and embrace the future, you write in such a way that does not create pretense and that is what I need more of in my life–women like you. This is the deadly noose of social media–pretense and image. We have so much to ‘prove’ and for me, as a woman that is desperately longing for authenticity in my own life, far too often I get pulled into all the bull shit of virtual image and virtual opinions and virtual approval. It is more likely that I will capture the wind in my grasp than I will ever attain the virtual approval that I am ‘needing’.

    As I blog, I juggle between the passive Christense approach that says, “if God wants people to read, then He will direct them to my blog. No need to sound the horn or ‘market’ my writing to create a following. All in God’s time…” and the over aggressive, over achieving need to build a following to make my writing ‘worth while’ in any way I can. As I waffle through this, there is nothing that I know other than I need to write whether or not anyone else will read. I long for community–for people that share the same joys and trials on this journey, for people that murmur an agreeable tone as they read the pixalated letters on the screen. I don’t want to build a following or create a virtual image–I want to encourage and I want to be encouraged.

    I am thankful that you walk the same road and share the same struggle.
    Thank you for writing so candidly and for coming back to virutal life.

  6. This post is so thought provoking. Well. Almost ALL of your posts are thought provoking! I am “on” facebook, but I am never on facebook. I started out like most people, totally obsessed. I read every status every day, commented, etc. It is a HUGE time suck. I am a HUGE procrastinator. It is SO not a good idea for me. So, I simply don’t go on facebook. Ever. I love to read the blogs that I have connected with. I love to comment to further the conversation. I totally feel the community here and at all the other blogs I read. And there is definitely a relationship. The only reason I started a blog was because of you guys. It has been a wild ride, that is for sure.

  7. I don’t think social media and writing necessarily go hand-in-hand…I wrote much more before I got sucked into FB, and so did the vast majority of the bloggers I know. They wrote more, they wrote BETTER and they were more present in their writing. Yes, the sense of authenticity and validation and community is worthwhile and valuable, but it’s not what keeps the writing heart going…it’s just what keeps it warm.

  8. This is such an important topic, Bethany. The length and depth of your comments show how much we’re all thinking about it!

    For me, blogging and social media aren’t very connected, but I often wonder if they should be. I love blogging because I love taking pictures and writing, and it seems like social media could help me connect with more people through my blog. But at the same time, lately, I keep thinking of something I read in Austin Kleon’s book on creativity: ‘do good work, and enjoy obscurity while you get good at what you do; there’s freedom in this he says; once you get known, have a following, it can all get much harder’ (I’m paraphrasing). I want to connect with more writers/bloggers out there, but I also want it to be because there’s something in what I have to say that people connect to, not because I’ve been working the social media connections. Does that make sense? For now, I’m content with obscurity and the small number of quality connections I do have.

    Thanks for sharing your journey and sparking the conversation!

  9. Eliot – I thought of you while I was writing this! The founder of Letu’s first (and only?) blogging community… I wish there were a way to recapture some of that feel now. (Maybe trying-to-find-balance is the new community theme?) By the way, I love that you admitted no one talks on the phone anymore; I am not a phone person myself, and I tend to be very skeptical when Facebook-ditchers claim they will keep up relationships through phone calls and letters. Possible? yes. Likely? no. Thanks for your comment!

    Krista – As always, dear, your perspective is a breath of fresh, sun-drenched air. I know I often err on the side of thinking too long-term and missing the present completely, so your philosophy of finding the best route for TODAY only is just the kind of thing I need. <3

    Sarah – I love email too, and I think that Instagram is to me what Twitter and Pinterest are to you — a less-overwhelming, more-personal mode of staying in touch than Facebook seems to offer. I'm curious what social networking is going to look like by the time my girls are full-fledged members of society. In all our muddling through it trying to find healthy guidelines, I hope we actually do manage to leave our kids with something that adds to our sanity rather than scrambling it. Thanks for your thoughts!

    Stephanie – Haha, I know just what you mean. I’ve come up with plenty of snarky comebacks in my head to the same situation. Of course, it’s hard to blame people for wanting to be free of the caffeine-addiction that is Facebook (perfect analogy!), but you can’t really snug a social network without snubbing the people who it’s made up of. This is definitely a more complex issue than it looks like on the surface; thanks for adding to the discussion!

    Tiffany – That pretense and desperation to promote a certain image as “a deadly noose” — you said it perfectly. If I ever start writing a blog entry that isn’t actually authentic or honest, I really do feel it like a tightening around my neck or a stone in my stomach. It is also sickening–not in a disgusting way but in a poisonous way–when others create false versions of their lives for public display. I don’t know how many times I’ve been jealous of a Facebook acquaintance only to find out later that things weren’t what they seemed. Oh, and do I ever hear you about waffling between wanting my blog to be “worthwhile” and thinking I should leave the details to God. It’s a tough question, and I know bloggers on all parts of spectrum, from those who refuse to run ads but end up with huge book deals anyway (see Momastery) to those whose blog is their career (see C. Jane Kendrick) to those who are still trying out various sponsorship and social networking combinations (see Rachel Held Evans). I don’t believe there is any one answer that is right for everyone, though I know that doesn’t help either you or me right now. 🙂 I’m glad to be wrestling these issues alongside you, friend.

    Megsie – I have missed you on Facebook! However, seeing your name show up here on a regular basis is such a happy thing that I can’t begrudge your absence from Ye Olde Time Suck. 🙂 I immediately think about you and Liz and others every time someone implies that online relationships aren’t real, and then I feel sorry for that person because what we have here–FB or not–is awesome. Love you, lady!

    Liz – Huh, I hadn’t thought about it in a while… a few years, I think… but you’re absolutely right about the decline in blogging quality (and number of bloggers!) as Facebook rose in popularity. I remember being so sad to see blogging friends announce that they would only be posting on Facebook now. It felt a lot like it feels now when friends leave Facebook. I do wonder how my sense of online community would change if I were to put the same amount of time I currently put into skimming FB into reading and commenting on friends’ blogs–an activity I feel hopelessly wistful about most of the time. Actually, I should be asking you about this; you do such a great job at staying connected here! <3

    Willow – I love these comments too; I guess this is a conversation we're all hungry to have! You know, I often think how glad I am for obscurity; even on days when I'm wishing for bigger or better, I don't actually want fame and the scrutiny, expectations, and criticism it brings. Just like you, I long for authentic community based on genuine connection, not some faceless mass of followers. At the same time, it's hard not to feel the pressure to justify my "hobby." Our online world is a complicated weave of motivations and objectives, isn't it? I'm very, very grateful to know people like you and the other commenters here who are attempting to keep your hearts alive and at the forefront of these questions.

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