Breaking Up with Social Media

Or trying to.  Maybe considering it.  Someday.

Hi.  My name is Erin, and I have a problem.  I'm addicted to social media.  At first, it was the bulletin boards of AOL, then, sharing songs over a shared network.  Then it grew to having a profile on Myspace, broadcasting my love of Broadway to anyone who cared.  And then, I moved on to Facebook.  Oh, I've tried twitter and Instagram, but... they've never stuck with me the way Facebook has.  

Oh Facebook, land of opinions, relative anonymity, connection with that kid who ate paste in my third-grade class.  It is so hard to quit you.  Quite literally, they make it close to impossible to shut down your accounts (which I've never tried, because I am addicted to social media in a way that horrifies me, but does not deter me.)  My own Facebook journey started out as reconnecting with distant friends and family, sharing cat videos, and pictures of food.  Then it became a place for sharing ideas and dialogue about social issues.  And then, well, that paste eating kid and my Aunt have clearly developed some very different opinions on the topic I am discussing, and Facebook seems like the best place to engage, argue, and ultimately end the tepid relationship on a sour note.

Except that it is not.  It is not a great platform for creating positive social discussion or change.  I learned that early on when I engaged in a rough discussion with another First Unitarian member on the value of voting in 2012.  We got into the weeds around social contract theory, anarchy, and then perceived personal attacks.  We then had to meet in person to have coffee and sort out the mess we both had made in order to maintain the relationship.  We leaned into the covenant provided to us through our connection at First Unitarian.  Facebook is not a covenantal community on its own. 

Recent events (The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other black civilians, protests and police brutality, Covid and climate change deniers, and leaders lacking basic human compassion) have once again lured me into the comments sections on friends and acquaintances Facebook pages.  I'm more selective now about when and why I chime in.  No significant learning occurs without significant relationship, and even then, it's not a guarantee.  Facebook is the perfect place to practice performative allyship, build up a false front that can inoculate you from the painful parts of authentic relationship, and easy disengagement when the going gets tough. It is so tempting to drop knowledge on a stranger and then disappear back into the relative comfort of your own echo chamber for validation.  I've recently succumbed.

Covenantal community, the sort that we aspire to build and experience at First Unitarian, is where our significant learning can occur.  We can hold one another accountable to our agreements, which provides the opportunity for authentic relationships where significant learning and growth can occur.  Again, it's not a guarantee, and disengagement when the going gets tough is as easy as not showing up.  When we bring our whole selves to the community in a spirit of both give and receive, when we drop the performative in favor of the formative, we create space for powerful, transformative stuff to happen.   

Humans are social beings.  We crave connection and community.  Facebook shines as a way to connect with friends, but it is not a community, and certainly not a covenantal one. The pandemic has shifted our access to our beloved communities.  Schools, workplaces, churches, and other community spaces are closed to in-person gatherings.  The real, physical aspect of showing up for each other has been traded for digital togetherness (not an upgrade, in my opinion), right next door to social media.  It can be easy then, to conflate beloved community with social media.  And if that is a challenge for adults with fully formed frontal cortex's, imagine the confusion of a child or adolescent who is encountering the community chat box for the first time, as their brain continues to mature.

There can be connective and authentic online communities.  I've heard from people I trust (Lena McCain, our youth coordinator is one of those voices) that it is possible, though creating them is not my expertise and rarely my lived experience.  I grew up in an analog world and adapted to the digital world that my own children were born into.  Social media arrived on the scene after my brain reached maturity.  Young adults and adolescents have moved on past Facebook and into Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat (and probably things I don't even know about.) for connection.  Agreements, or the lack thereof, can make all the difference in how a community functions together.  We've spent significant time, energy, and resources this year revisiting our covenant at First Unitarian.  There is a draft, there will be discussion, and there will be a vote on adopting the language as our covenant.  I'm excited by this work, and by the ways we've shown up for one another in this difficult time of fear, illness, and injustice.  I'm optimistic about our communal strength, borne of our agreements, to build a new normal in the wake of unrest and disruption.  Let us practice covenant together online and in person when it is safe to do so, in the hopes that compassionate agreements are established in the wider national community.  

About the Author