I am, in the fullest sense of it, Extremely Online. I am just old enough that I remember a time before computers, before I had an iPhone, when hours felt longer and my curiosity felt less like a means to an end and more like a forest to be explored without a watch or compass. But, like any good millennial, I took to tech like a fish in water, all the way back to AOL Instant Messenger, iPods, the classic Nokia, to iPhones, iPads, Cloud storage, and so forth and so on. I remember waiting to get my .edu email address when I was starting college, because it was how I could join Facebook, which sounded really neat after years of LiveJournal, OpenDiary, and Xanga.
When I was in seminary in Austin, I heard about a new type social media that would be launching at SXSW and I, never missing a chance to try a new website, signed up for the one, the only: Twitter. I quickly found my way through hashtags to a local event that happened each month, in which you would walk into the room and on your nametag you didn’t write your name, you wrote your Twitter handle. I met people at those events that I text with to this day. You can imagine my surprise when I wandered into an Episcopal Church one Sunday to see a friend of mine that I had met through Twitter. I would later serve as the seminarian and deacon at her church, and we started a tradition of me eating Easter lunch with her family. But first, we met in a bar with our Twitter handles on name tags.
I have, for this whole time, been a fierce advocate for social media, and I will continue to hold the position that social media is actually good. I will never grow tired of saying that internet friends are real friends. When I say I am praying for you on Twitter, what I am saying is that I am going to set my phone down, close my eyes, and say a prayer for you by name. In various seasons of extreme loneliness, I have become more and more Extremely Online, because I could not find the local communities I needed to love and sustain me. But I found them on Twitter and, more often than not, what I see on Twitter looks an awful lot like how I imagine the kingdom of God on this side of the veil: composed of belly laughs, full of typos, sometimes crass, memes more powerful than words, threads written better than some prayer books, subtweets because we are people after all, links to hymns that make me cry so hard I remember my baptism.
And yet, still, even in its goodness and its odd ways of worship, I struggle with social media. Not even social media itself, but who I am when I am on it, how I can’t get off it, how I see follower counts like mirrors focused only on my eyes, hollowed from staring sideways into blue light far past my bedtime. I would love to announce that I am writing this article to say that, upon publication, I will be changing my relationship with social media. But that would be a boldfaced lie. Upon publication, I will probably tweet this article, then write a thread about how I hate grocery shopping, crowdsource something because I don’t trust myself to make basic life decisions, and use a news headline to make a poorly written joke. I am basically a prophet, as this is definitely going to happen.
No, I will not be radically changing who I am as a person, but I am trying to put into place some practices that help me reorient myself regarding social media, one small step at a time. Here are some practices I am trying, and will continue to try, that I offer to you as possible ways to explore your own relationship with social media:
- Taking One Month Off: I took January off social media and I loved it, which is hilarious because it took me about 48 hours into February before I had gone completely off the rails. God created me to be extreme so I blame God for this.
- Connect with Online Friends Off the App: While I took my month off, I did multiple “text and watch a movie together” hangs with Twitter friends, or I exchanged phone numbers with social media friends so we could still chat, but without me being online. It was a great way to maintain the gift of social media, while dragging myself away from the scroll.
- Set Some Boundaries: One thing I do on occasion is turn off my phone completely by about 9 p.m. I use an Alexa to play a podcast, so I can wind down but without the anxiety rise that can accompany social media. When I was completely off socials, I observed a Great Silence, which meant turning my phone off at 9 p.m. and not turning it on again until 9 a.m. Even if you didn’t do this every day, it could be done occasionally or become part of a broader Sabbath practice.
- Don’t Let Yourself Get Lonely: There have been times when I intended to be off social media, but I came back, because I was painfully lonely. And that’s okay. If social media will offer you the reminder you are not alone, then it will probably be good for you in that moment.
- Trust Yourself: When I am on social media to the point that it isn’t good for me, I know it. Something is off. When it is helping me connect and laugh and love others, I know it. I can feel it. I encourage you to put your finger on the pulse of your relationship with social media, trusting that you know in your gut when it is serving you and when it is just stressing you out.
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