Connection, Embodiment, and some thoughts on Social Media (and why I am taking a break)
By David Hall
There was a time when I really enjoyed Facebook.
For a little bit of context, I fall into the oldest cohort of Millennials (a micro-generation that is often known as the Oregon Trail Generation), so a lot of my social development spanned a lot of changes in the nature of social media. From AOL instant messenger, to people building GeoCities, to Xanga accounts.
I really didn’t do any of this, but when I first got on Facebook in the mid 2000s, as I said, I really enjoyed it.
Living away from both my hometown and where I did my undergraduate degree (I was in grad school at the time), Facebook allowed me to have some connection with people with whom I went to high school or college, and had not laid eyes on since. Through pictures and posts, I felt I was able to reach out from a distance and have some sense of connection to others that I would not have had any other point of contact with otherwise.
Granted, many of these are what social psychologists refer to as “weak-ties.” Many of these folks were not necessarily people from whom I would get wedding invitations or who I would call up for a night out if happened to be in town. But they were the sort of people that would elicit a sincere handshake (or even a hug) if I happened to run across them in a restaurant. They were people with whom I had shared different chapters of my life, and by staying connected with them, even loosely, it allowed me to remain connected to parts of myself. And, as I said, I enjoyed that.
Fast-forward many years, and social media is not nearly as much fun.
Why it has gotten so bad has to do with a lot of things, a very poignant explanation was recently published in the Atlantic by one of my Elvises, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. But between the political climate, the pandemic, and a great deal of personal pain that people carry around that come out unprocessed; I have found social media to entail far more heat than it provides light these days.
I don’t post a lot these days on social media, and that’s on purpose. Some of it has been professional discretion, I work in a field that requires being able to invite people's confidences. And for this, there needs to be trust, which usually leads people to infer that I am on their “side” regarding any number of perspectives they have about themselves and the world around them. Sometimes they are right; other times less so, but if I am guarded in my speech then I have more social capital to invest in my in work. Biting my tongue is not always the answer, but I have a commitment to my vocation, and discerning how I can be in it well should have a high call on my priorities.
Another reason for my circumspection is that my general social network, both those with whom I am more distant as well as those with whom I feel genuinely close, represent a wide variety of world views and opinions. Many of my own perspectives and convictions, if shared on social media, would run the risk of deeply infuriating half of those connected with me. And it would be different halves in different moments. There are so many hills to die on. Some are truly worth it....but still, so many hills.
And all this, I have to say, leaves me so very tired.
I thought about quitting a lot of social media altogether, but there’s also still some traces of that initial connectedness that cuts through it all. I love seeing your all‘s birthday parties and vacation pictures. When you lose a family member, or have to say goodbye to a pet; I want to know because it matters to me. Both celebrating and commiserating, even from a distance, is a worthy and good part of wider community.
But I’m also entering into a season of life where I want to be thinking about how I cultivate more than just the weak-ties. Even with time restraints and distance, it’s more important to me than ever to be deliberate in my relationships.
There’s several theological types that I follow that talk often about the importance of embodiment in relationships. The commitment of sharing physical space, with all of the rich joys and discomfort which that entails.
I’ll end with a thought about a night out with friends Brandy and I had recently.
We’ve known Chris and Elizabeth for over a decade, though the time between us seeing each other can be great. We met them when Elizabeth was a coworker of Brandy and I, and after a double date we realized that we found it easy to enjoy each other‘s company. But work changes and kids meant that we saw each other less. We went several years without getting together until last summer, when I was helping Elizabeth work through the logistics in her start-up process for her private practice. In lieu of a consultant fee, I asked instead that she and Chris take Brandy and I out to dinner.
We had a wonderful time, and of course we said we should do it again soon. Months go by, and while I was at one of my nephew's baseball games, I caught a little bit of somebody else's conversation where they’re talking about Chris’s brother. This prompted me to think about Chris and Elizabeth, and then I remembered that I saw on social media that they are expecting another child this summer.
I sent a text to say we’d love to get dinner with them soon, specifically as we wanted to catch them before the baby comes and their time is less free.
It took a few weeks of texting back-and-forth, and we almost had to abort last minute because of some babysitter issues, but then we happily found ourselves out together for a few hours, first at Brandy and my favorite neighborhood Mexican spot, and then sitting in our backyard watching some of the first smatterings of the season's fireflies coming out. The embodiment was special, but I do also have to note that social media is partly what made this happen.
In that embodied space, we talked about things in our lives and opinions and fears and hopes. The sorts of things you talk about when you’re with other people that share a sense of connection and safety. And in that embodied space, the conversations too hard to have well on social media are able to happen. And we can be seen and heard in the present in ways that other avenues the world gives us simply will not allow.
As I am in my 40s now, I think a lot more about people I want to have that sort of time with. It won’t necessarily mean high frequency, and that is okay. In the end, there are certain people that I see regularly because of the regular rhythms of my life of work, family, and church. And there are other people that because, of different rhythms and physical distance, I simply won’t see very often. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to take these relationships for granted.
Brandy and I plan to be writing more. Not because we want you to buy something or because we want to be "influencers." This space really is just for our friends and family. And this is designed to be about us being purposefully with those in our lives. Both with connections over the distances that social media can bridge, but even more so over the conversation at tables, in backyards, and in living rooms.
I am taking some time off of social media. I am calling it "Sunlight Over Blue Light." (I realize that this blog, and other things I will continue to do on screens, also has a lot of blue light, but I thought I was clever with my title so I am sticking with it). It is a bit of a fast, but it is also just some time I want to refocus, to write, and be more present in relationships. I am not done with social media (I think), but I want it to have a different place in my life.
Hope to share more soon.