About Rekindling the Writing Spark and "The Great Social Media Dilemma"

Coming back to this site feels like it did to walk down the streets of Cambridge two months ago - I'm a little wide-eyed, slowly wandering paths I once walked almost daily, skimming through old posts like I ducked into old familiar shops to finger the clothing on sale or the books on display. Though I smile fondly while I wander, loving the familiarity, I can't help but feel like I don't belong here anymore.

I don't know why I stopped writing. I think it was in part that when I wrote about my grandfather's passing, the post was so real, so full, that it said everything in my heart. There was nothing left to give. What could I possibly say that could sit comfortably side-by-side with reflections on death, community, and the binding of hearts through service?

But part of it probably had to do with my growing fear of the internet as a place of sharing. An anxiety had been growing for some time. I see now in my "Posts" box that I had started, and left unfinished, several different posts on the "Great Social Media Dilemma" - i.e. this paradox that something (like Facebook) could offer such momentous, profound good while crushing souls at the same time.

The profound good:
Dave and I have moved so many times between the two of us that we have friends and family scattered all over the country (and in some cases, the world). Facebook and Instagram offer something we would never be able to have otherwise, a glimpse into the lives of people still dear to us but far away. Some examples of direct blessings:

  • I still correspond by email with a dear friend half a world away, but even still, Facebook allows me to see relatively frequent pictures of her growing children and know a little of what they are doing day-to-day as a family. Marriage announcements and the births of babies are especially blessed things to hear about via Facebook or Instagram. 
  • Social media makes it easy to reach out to friends or acquaintances I haven't seen in quite some time. When email addresses or phone numbers are out-of-date, it's so easy to send a Facebook message. That's how I gathered most of my addresses when we finally decided to start sending Christmas cards to friends from all the various place we have lived. 
  • I also love social media for conversation starters. When I get together with a cousin I might see only once or twice a year, we don't have to sit awkwardly staring at each other and wondering what we have in common. Instead I can start by asking her enthusiastically about that family trip she just took to Yellowstone because I saw her Instagram posts about it. For this introvert, social media has dramatically increased my confidence when reconnecting. 
  • Recently I was contacted by a woman I didn't know because she was moving into my neighborhood and saw on Facebook that a friend of her brother's (me) already lived there. She was able to reach out to me for information about the neighborhood and we were excited to learn we had daughters the same ages, both heading to the same elementary school.
  • Most poignantly, in my mind, I have been able to learn about tragedies in the lives of several friends who were, again, far away and not in my immediate circle of contact anymore. In each case, I was able to reach out and mourn with them when I would not have known to do so otherwise. In some cases, support was time-sensitive, and had I not been checking Facebook daily, I would have been too late to help. People need each other, and social media expands our ability to love and encircle. 
There is other good too, apart from connecting with old friends. Social media has expanded my perspective in very real ways. My Facebook friends and acquaintances run a wide gamut of political, philosophical, and theological viewpoints. My ideas and opinions have been pressed and challenged more than they ever would have been as people post articles, make status declarations, and take up causes. I believe that my access to this wide array of opinions and worldviews has (sometimes painfully) increased my empathy, understanding, and compassion. I am grateful for it.

At the same time, this sharing of opinions has led to troubling territory. There were impassioned debates about important issues long before social media. Anyone who reads about the presidencies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson knows that the political scene is probably not actually more heated these days than it was at the nation's founding. But it is more visible and, I believe, it is probably becoming more polarized. Before, if you took your opinion to the local tavern, your friends and neighbors could sit there and argue with you. You might get red in the face in the heat of the moment, but it is also likely that you would look around and realize that you were all alone with your opinion. Or at least, there were only a few of you to a few of them, and the opinions on the other side of the fence came from people you had known and trusted for years. Were they not more likely to help you moderate your opinion?

Today it is possible to find vast numbers of people who hold the same opinion you do. It almost doesn't matter the opinion, choose anything and you'll get likes and retweets from dozens of strangers from all over the world. It bolsters confidence in your opinion, it legitimizes the way you feel and think. There is no need to moderate and no need to listen. You have formed your club out of disparate like-minded thinkers plucked from who-knows-where. You can draw your line in the sand and stand fiercely behind it, growing more certain that you are right with every new like and share.

This new kind of battleground, spattered with faceless armies of loud like-opinions, make the social media world an increasingly intimidating place to linger. Often I leave a Facebook perusal feeling emotionally drained, inexplicably sad. I've become ashamed of how I now interact with Facebook. At times, for example, I have realized that my impression of a friend has evolved when I am no longer interacting with him in person and all I see of him is his online presence. It is an unsettling feeling to realize that I have started to forget what a wonderful, multi-faceted friendship we had in lieu of the narrow vision I have online.

I have deeply regretted things I have ignorantly or flippantly posted online when they have unwittingly offended or brought anger. I have become a bit paranoid, refusing to hit the "like" button or comment on a public post because I know it will be seen on all my friends' walls. I started avoiding any hot topic, staying silent. I have wondered, when I did say something, if an ambiguous frustrated statement by an acquaintance posted hours later referred to my post and "should I private message her and try to apologize?" (When that happened recently Dave looked at me like I was crazy and told me there was a 1% chance that friend's post had anything to do with me. I still worry that it did.)

What's the answer to all this fear? If I only post family things, I'm ignoring important world events and social issues. I'm thereby proclaiming myself neutral, uncaring, unfeeling. If I post about world events, I feel like I have to know enough to take a firm stand. Mostly I feel overwhelmed and frustratingly befuddled. Every issue is nuanced, complex, can be seen from so many angles. How on earth am I supposed to account for all the complexity? If I do have an opinion, educated or not, I am certain to disagree with some of my many Facebook friends. I have seen some polite discussions about controversial topics before, but so often online disagreement is ugly. You can never disclaim, clarify, explain enough. There is no tone of voice to help you out. It's "us vs. them" out there.

So basically, for the last two years or so, I have chosen to walk away. I haven't posted, I haven't hit "like," I haven't commented. I've chosen silence, lurking as if I didn't check my social media threads regularly.

And yeah, my blog went silent too.

I don't know what's going to happen moving forward. I have certain reasons for wanting to fire up the blog again. I gave it a new look tonight, decided to take it out for a test spin. It makes me anxious to think that blogging means coming up with regular new writing ideas. Before thoughts used to just come and I would jump over to my keyboard, type furiously, rework a couple of sentences, reread, then publish away. But it's been a long time since I've felt the urge. I wonder if it's the kind of thing that can be coaxed back to life? Maybe this will be the only post I publish for another two years. I guess we'll have to see.


tyhill said…
Two years later and I feel this. Social media is the highest of highs and lowest of lows

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