Social Media and the Sacrament of the Present Moment

Why are people who quit social media so amusing? After years of embroiled use, a bad break up, a nasty spat, a vague feeling of listlessness, another Luddite throws up his hands and renounces social media with—of all things—a tweet or a Facebook status: “Friends, I’m deactivating my account in a week. I can’t take it anymore. Email me instead.” A handful of friends say he’ll be missed, though most of us aren’t exactly complaining. A few even hit the like button. No one is surprised to see him back in a month or two with a new profile picture—the one where it looks like he cropped himself out of a selfie with his college girlfriend at a dance—and a new habit of punctuating his soliloquies with fruit emojis. After the eleventh picture of what he ate for breakfast, we discreetly hit the “unfollow” button and consider quitting Facebook altogether—but wait, isn’t that trending?

The number of people closing their social media accounts is rising, just barely, but enough to ask: Is not having a Facebook account becoming fashionable? The only scientific answer is … maybe. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Deleting your Twitter could become the new normcore (wearing “normal” clothing to blend in with the crowd). Deactivating your Instragram could become the new moonwalk—you know, that gliding motion that makes the dancer appear to be moving forward when in fact he is moving backward. Whether or not it’s actually happening I leave to the data-crunching researchers and their amassed statistical compendia, though I will put forward one anecdote: I have not yet met a hipster who was not connected.

The fact that quitting social media could be considered a fashion statement at all only confirms for me why it might be time to take a break from Facebook: social media turns everything into a thing. Like grandma’s tawdry jewelry, the medium solicits a servile display of exaggerated flattery or affection that is—literally!—a show. For years, I have tried to connect with distant relatives and friends through status updates, throwing intimate details of my life (the pie I baked, the smile of my newborn son, my wife’s new glasses) into the void. That High School friend I haven’t seen in years? He’ll comment. The youth minister of that mega church I used to attend? She’ll definitely “like.” The librarian I e-mailed to sort out my fines? Hey, she might even “share,” you never know. After years of scanning my newsfeed, let me tell you: no emoticon can express the raw pulse of deactivating your Facebook account.

Amusing, perhaps, and I’ll probably be back in a month or two, but may I trouble you with one more word on the perils of social media? My thesis is simple: When it comes to social media, you’ll never wake up with a story to tell. It robs us of the sacrament of the present moment. Like AOL’s digital prophet “Shingy,” yet not at all like Shingy, I believe in “storytelling—more story, less telling.”

#LessTelling
“Then I posted it,” grandpa says, and the grandchildren lean in.

“Within minutes, it had almost twenty likes,” he says. His granddaughter can hardly suppress a child-like Whoa.

“But then,” and here Grandpa’s voice begins to growl, “my old college roommate left a snarky comment.”

The children gasp.

“After praying about it, I hit … the button.”

A hush falls over the room. Grandpa wipes his brow with a camouflage hanky, just like back in ’Nam. “I hit the button in the upper right hand corner of my keypad,” he repeats, and then whispers: “Delete.”

Who are we kidding? Doing Facebook is boring. It doesn’t matter how interesting your real life is: the act of social media is, in and of itself, not a good story. Turning any given moment of your life into a “Kodak moment,” actually diminishes the moment. Singing Happy Birthday to your five year-old is a different kind of shared experience than having her strike a pose, hold the cake at just the right angle, taking a picture, and then peering into your smart phone—it’ll only take a sec!—as you choose which filter to use on Instagram and write a caption with your index finger: “My little princess.”

All this storytelling needs more story, and a lot less telling. You have a life. But in always telling it, you’re losing the story. However beautiful or funny your selfies look, however witty or cute your status updates sound, as soon as you share a story from your life on Facebook, you’ve just lost a little part of life.

The bodily act of social media is hunched, cross-eyed, trifling, reptilian. The gestures of a Midwest farmer feeding chickens or milking a cow are engaging, almost beautiful. The somatic rhythms of cutting carrots or sewing a quilt or folding the laundry are graceful, even poetic. The everyday routines of brushing teeth or taking out the trash or turning the page of a book—this is the stuff of art. But the physical gesture, the living breathing moment, of posting something on Facebook is not worth painting, sculpting, putting pen to paper. The human form engaged in social media is a bent, fastidious, anxious thing.

How many couples sit in their living rooms, faces glowing in the half-light of their laptops, together but not together? How many childhoods have been made a public spectacle? How many calls have never been dialed, letters never stamped, dinner invitations never sent, and all because everyone already has a vague sense of being connected? Time in front of the screen is up, so is depression, after bouts of cybersex even adults break-up via text, the demand for prescription lenses is at an all time high, and kids are fatter than ever.

None of the adverse outcomes of social media were intended, of course, but the individual decisions to post and like and share ended up contributing to them. These tiny moments multiply into a life. The millions of individual tweets, posted for millions of individual reasons, have snowballed into one massive story that’s not worth telling.

I had a vision of lying on my deathbed, stealing glances at my newsfeed with a mixture of remorse and bitterness. My kids were there, but half there, stealing glances at their smart phones, wondering how they’ll tweet about it when I’m gone.

#MoreStory
A few minutes here, a few minutes there. Taken as a whole, over the ten years I’ve had a Facebook account, these minutes have turned into twenty-four hour days, seven-day weeks. Yet for all the pokes and likes and comments, I don’t have a single story worth telling. The accumulated months of scrolling through my newsfeed are as memorable as passing an Oldsmobile on the freeway.

That I have a personal problem or that I am too hard on social media is an erroneous characterization of my thesis. Television, smart phones, the Internet itself—there are many contributing factors to the adverse effects of the phenomenon I am calling “social media.” But it is social media that makes the Internet sizzle with the illusion of life. The comment boxes and share buttons are what turn the screen into a simulacrum of the barbershops of yore. Online, what would we “do” without social media?

My son is almost seven months old. From the moment he was born I have been possessed by an impulse to photograph him with my iPhone. “Tyler, come look!” my wife calls from the kitchen. Our son is holding a toy block and belly laughing like it’s the funniest thing in the world … and I run to grab the camera. I’m on a mission “to capture” the moment. So I am no longer present. I am literally no longer in the room with my happy boy. I return, phone in hand, but the smile is gone. I thrust the toy block at him and coax just one more grin for the camera. Then I open Instagram. I think of a clever hashtag, and “share.” It took only a minute or two, but my desire to capture the moment ruined the moment.

I am finished. Mixing social media with daily life diminishes daily life. When I’m with my son, I want him to be able to take for granted that I am there. And no matter how often I might look up from my phone, if our time together is material for social media, I will never be more than half there. I want him to grow up in a home that is a safe haven, not a stage.

conversation by  Sandor Nyilasy copy

#PracticePresence
St. Paul encourages us to be in the world but not of the world. The KJV puts it this way: “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2). This is not easy. It is difficult to see the face of Christ in your neighbor, difficult to rest in the sacrament of the present moment. Social media does not help. It doesn’t help transformation, renewing the mind, or proving what is good. In the end, the only thing that can be said for having a Facebook account is that it is to be of the world but not in it—and this is to lose on both fronts.

We are in flight from the sacrament of the present moment, and we are using social media as the vehicle for that flight. To conform to its methods of relating to people, its conventions and systems, is to risk deforming the face of Christ in our neighbor. It is to risk telling a story that is increasingly not worth telling.

All the while, anonymity is just one click away. Just imagine: someday no one will know it’s your birthday except your mom and a few close friends, and no one except the relatives you invited over will know what’s for dinner! But until then, something is dangerously close to being lost.

My list of concerns is by no mean exhaustive, but I do think most of us feel at a gut level that we are absorbed in a world that is, when talked about in real life, profoundly boring. In emoji terms, my concern is for the fruit of social media; that is, while poop emojis might exist, it is by the fruit that my critique of social media should be judged.

Somewhere a child is pulling her mom’s hand in the condiments aisle: “Just a sec, sweetie. I’m trying to compose a tweet.”

“Can you give me a few minutes?” someone, somewhere, is shouting over the din that passes for conversation at Applebees. “I’m trying to find some Ke$ha GIFs.”

While the world swarms around what’s trending, I’ll be talking to a neighbor on the front porch, playing cribbage and chuckling with righteous pleasure, and no one will know about it.

Tyler Blanski

By

Tyler Blanski, a Catholic convert, is the author of When Donkeys Talk: Rediscovering the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (Zondervan, 2012) and Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred (Upper Room Books, 2010). www.holyrenaissance.com

  • ForChristAlone

    I wonder whether this almost total immersion – this frenetic attempt to make contact with another – in social media isn’t related to the anxiety generated by the realization of one’s own mortality. It is what the early psychoanalysts described as a basic fear of death. This headlong rush to make contact seems an attempt to defeat death which lurks around the corner in a very uncertain world.

    It is also connected, it seems to me, to a basic ‘ennui’ – a sense of being disconnected from the world around us which is, in fact, frightfully boring, and desperately trying to establish any kind of connection – even though it is ephemeral and illusory.

    Of course, none of this is unrelated to the fact that increasing numbers of people no longer believe in God who desires through Jesus Christ to establish an eternal connection with us that is life-giving and one which promises what they world is so dismally missing – inner peace. Death where is thy sting?

    In the end, it’s not about social media at all; it’s an existential crisis that is happening right before our eyes. We are witnessing the spiritual death of man who wills not to be redeemed..

    • St JD George

      I’ve had similar thoughts. The problem with the virtual world of course is that it’s mostly sterile, when something gets messy you can just turn off. In real life people are messy and it takes skills developed from interaction to become fully human and hopefully merciful. Even though people say they don’t believe, deep inside I think everyone has an unease in what they can’t reconcile – be it their own mortality or contemplating how things came to be. Probably social media satisfies on some basic human level, but like with anything it can create a new neurosis in those who don’t learn how to manage their life in balance.

  • Vinny

    It’s all a desperate attempt to have personal contact through non-personal contact. They’ll keep trying. Maybe, at some point, this will all come full circle and God will once again be welcomed into people’s lives.

    • Shere Khan

      you’d have to evict egoism first, and that is not going to happen; mr bar-Joseph was, above all, a realist.-too real for egoism.

  • JP

    My older teens haven’t used Facebook in years. Most never used Twitter. They have a close knit group of friends (perhaps 5) scattered around the US and the world. Their primary means of communication is Skype or the online Monopoly game (which has an online chat function for players).

    From what I can tell, it is the 40+ group that uses Facebook and Twitter the most. Other sites like Tumbler are so infested with raunchy content that it drives away most people whose primary desire is to communicate. And believe it or not, blog hits worldwide are going up after falling the last 5 years.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    “A world that is profoundly boring” sums it up. The other day I was in a roadside restaurant and at another table saw a family bow their heads together in prayer. I was touched to see these seemingly ordinary and modern parents teenage son and aughter take a moment to thank God. Then I realized they were simultaneously checking their messages.

    • St JD George

      That is sadly funny. Maybe they were looking at their Catholic app to find a prayer.

      • musicacre

        That’s even funnier:)

      • Shere Khan

        if you need by all means pray, prayer without the reignition of a real need, is just talking to yourself;as a child it was clear to me that all the prayer business was just lying to myself-the emperor had no clothes.

    • Shere Khan

      nothing made by our common father creator endlessnes,or in which he is the active element could possibly be boring. to quote the passive half of the caus of my creation, only boring pole get bored in this wonderful world are btrees flowers animals, mountains oceans, and even miniatures of god; boring already?-wake up- the opium of egoism makes all beings sleepy.

      • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

        Thanks! I always am grateful for a choice example of the passionate, nonsensical, double talk of those possessed by an unclean being. It helps me discriminate!

  • St JD George

    I opened a Facebook and Twitter account years ago mostly in response to seeing stores advertising to follow them so I thought it might be interesting to see when my wife and I are out shopping what deals might be available. That was a big disappointment and I promptly stopped. Now my phone is full of dozen’s of Catholic apps and I have a confession to make, I find myself spending a lot of time on them. Too much of a good thing I think is still too much of a good thing, as time is a resource and like anything these too can become addictive, take away from other things that are important that demand our attention. The technology is great of course, and we must each learn how to deal with it so it doesn’t replace human interaction.

  • Pamela

    Amen! After opening and closing facebook accounts three times to appease friends or gain access to websites, I quit for good about two years ago and haven’t regretted it once!

  • Martha

    Dude. I am totally sharing this. 😉

  • Craig Roberts

    “…and no one will know about it.”

    Only if you can resist the impulse to write an article about. Or mention it in a book. Perhaps it will be in your awesome memiors that finally show everybody how ‘in the moment’ you were while they were busy socializing. True solitude starts in your head. When the loneliness sets in we all go running back to our friends to yell, “Hey! I almost missed you guys!”

  • Tom

    What is really making me think is that I can’t see the difference between reading your article and then the comments and looking at someone’s longer FB post. Is your article just a longer post? Is it that FB is too impulsive and not thoughtful?

  • St JD George

    Sacramental use of Social Media … has anyone heard about the Cradle of Christianity Fund that Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett have started to help persecuted and displaced Christians in the Middle East. It’s being administered by the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) which I’d like to think has low or no administrative overhead so most or all proceeds go to help. If anyone has any knowledge to share, much appreciated, and if worthy then worth sharing.

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/october/winter-is-coming-mark-burnett-roma-downey-iraq-syria-ige.html?paging=off

    • Shere Khan

      “sacramental use of Social Media”???

      sacramental masturbation more like.

  • musicacre

    Well-done, an article that makes me think. A few times the kids have posted a video showing how de-personalized their world becomes by using fb, and ironically it doesn’t slow them down. I think an article with some soul searching and reflection (like yours) is more effective.

  • Major914

    I can honestly say that from the first moment I heard of the facebook phenomenon, I saw it as incredibly shallow and enfeebling–something to be uniformly despised and avoided.

    • Shere Khan

      there is no quibbling about that-it’s all me,me,me.

  • Consolatrix Afflictorum

    Take this from someone who deleted his facebook four months ago….if you are thinking about deleting your social network accounts, DO IT!

    You will be so much happier and will hopefully over time you will use that extra time for prayer and meditation. Detach yourself from these burdens because one day you will have to leave these accounts behind anyways. If you die to yourself before death, you will quickly move in virtue and become more holy. However, it is best to do this by cutting off those things that are useless or even harmful, which social network sites can be.

    Also, learn to love being forgotten. It is such a beautiful feeling and if we have trouble doing so, we should ask Our Lady for assistance in this matter. If we are forgotten by the world and we grow in our interior life, we will have made progress that no one can take away from us.

  • Shere Khan

    social media, so-called seem to be no more than facilities for weak willed chattering sheep; I have more dignity than to resort to such infantile nonsense

  • Paul

    Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc … all fads. These man-made, technology-based systems pretend to sell & offer us happiness but it’s all lies & illusions. For any convenience offered an inconvenience always entails.

  • jsbach

    It is social media, not religion, that is the opiate of the people. Sorry, Karl Marx.

  • Megan

    Wonderful article!

MENU