Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
A while back I did a computer fast where I shut down my computer and put it away completely for an entire week. No email. No web surfing. No Facebook, Twitter or blogging. I didn’t even use my mobile phone for anything other than making actual phone calls. It ended up being an even more illuminating experience than I could have imagined. Not only did my little experiment reveal some stark truths about how I use my time in a typical day, but it showed me just how much my interactions with the online world had impacted my spiritual life, as well.
Naturally, the minute my fast was over I ran back to my computer like I was Richard Gere in the final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman, and these days I’m pretty much back to living as if my laptop were a bodily appendage. But I have remembered some of the lessons I learned during my week of living like it was 1995, and they’ve helped me keep my relationship with Facebook, Twitter and other social media in check. I find that if I can watch out for the following pitfalls, I can (usually) maintain a healthy relationship to the online world:
The Top Three Spiritual Pitfalls of Facebook, Twitter and Other Social Media:
1. Overvaluing your own opinions
In what would end up being one of the most ridiculous moments of my computer fast—perhaps of my entire life—I happened to see a commercial I didn’t like on television, and instinctively reached for my computer to update my social media sites with some pithy commentary about it. When I remembered that that wasn’t an option, I grabbed a pen and paper and jotted down my thoughts to share when I was back online. I think it was at that moment, when I looked down and saw that I had deemed the message “UltraShine shampoo makes women look like Dee Snider” so worthy as to be captured and proclaimed to the world, that I realized that my involvement with social media just might have made me start to overvalue my own opinion.
If I had had that thought 10 years ago, it most likely would have disappeared as quickly as it had come, like the hundreds of other inane opinions I form about random things in a day. But now I’d developed a habit of making sure that no opinion, no matter how ill-thought-out, inappropriate or pointless, went unannounced. In fact, I’d almost come to think of it as a duty, as if I had to form opinions about every single thing that crossed my path so that I could bless my social media friends with my commentary. Needless to say, it did nothing to help my already-epic struggles with the sin of pride to be stuck in the habit of thinking THIS IS IMPORTANT every time I had even the most fleeting thoughts.
2. Overvaluing other people’s opinions
There was a distinct silence in my life during my week offline, and I only realized later that it was the silence of not being exposed to other people’s feedback all the time. Don’t get me wrong: I love my online interactions with people, and even largely credit my conversion to Catholicism to discussions I had on blogs and social media. Getting other folks’ input via the internet is often a great thing. But it’s important to get a break from it sometimes too. The ding of the iPhone announcing a new email, the responses to our Facebook status updates, the @replies on Twitter, the direct messages, comments on our blogs, comments on our photo uploads, etc. all combine to form a near-constant hum of feedback—and, at least in my experience, it can be addictive.
During my fast I took a nice picture of a sunset over my back yard, and it felt weird to just look at it and enjoy it for myself. Normally I would have uploaded it, emailed it, tweeted it, and waited for the responses to come rolling in. The moment made me realize that, because of my over-involvement with social media, the opinions of internet comboxes had become my default source for validation and approval. I’d all but stopped listening for the voice of God in the little moments of daily life, forgetting that his “still, small voice” doesn’t communicate by direct message.
3. Getting into a “slot machine” mentality
Probably the biggest lesson I learned in my experiment was about the “slot machine effect” of social media. During my fast, I regularly felt the urge to jump up and see what was new online—and each time I was looking for a payoff. Every so often, we all come across virtual jackpots on the internet: an unbelievably hilarious Youtube video, a life-changing blog post, a huge bit of news announced on Facebook, a critical tip discovered on Twitter, an email with juicy info from a friend, and so on. Each time I felt the urge to mindlessly drift over to my computer, it was the same urge that slot machine addicts must feel when they pull that lever: I was seeking the jackpot.
This, for me, is the most potentially addictive aspect of social media. With all the great stuff that’s out there online, I know that it’s only a matter of time until I come across the next payoff ... and it’s that knowledge that leads me into real time wasting territory. I end up floating over to try my luck in front of the glowing screen instead of engaging in the duties of my vocation, hanging out with my family, praying, etc.—activities which, like most things in real life, don’t offer a quick and easy jackpot.
There are a lot of warnings out there about the various dangers of social media use, and if you read enough of them it can start to feel like we’re all doomed if we don’t immediately burn our routers and communicate by smoke signals alone. I’m sure there are plenty of other valid concerns out there, but I’ve found that doing nothing more than keeping an eye on these three most common pitfalls is often enough to maintain a healthy balance between real life and the lure of the online world.