September is one of a handful of “new years” many of us use to orient or mark time. The beginning of an academic year is a new beginning for many. It is a time to recalibrate, reorient, recommit or remind ourselves of important truths.
The beginning of this “new year” is a particularly interesting one for me. Both of my kids started college this year. “Back to school” looks and feels different when you are the parent of young adults who are increasingly taking responsibility for themselves.
I find myself in a reflective space. Where did the time go? How did my kids grow up so fast? What fresh parenting agonies and exaltations await? Who am I now that these two creatures whose care dominated the better part of the past two decades are becoming more independent?
I’ve also been ruminating on more general themes. I’m feeling a hunger for simplicity, for meaningful connection, for decluttering my life and my head. I’m wondering what habits of the heart and mind will be necessary to live well in this next stage of life.
What practices will make me less prone to worry and more attentive to others? What rhythms of life will sustain me in my vocation and in the relationships God has given me to tend? How will I maintain sanity and strength amid the noise of digital life and the polarizing forms of discourse that seem to be the lingua franca of our time?
Alan Jacobs wrote a piece about how Facebook is toying with the idea of removing “likes” from its posts. Instagram has already done something like this in obscuring the number of likes we can see. The idea, presumably, is to save us from ourselves. We cannot help but obsess over numbers and to associate our personal worth with them, so we must be shielded from this information.
The irony is rich, of course. Having subjected users to a decade or more of operant conditioning, and training us to pant after the tasty morsels of affirmation that social media delivers, fiddling a bit with the presentation while leaving unchanged a vast digital architecture that feeds upon human social need seems like a half-hearted gesture. These companies know very well where and how their billions are made. It is not exactly in their interest for human beings to disengage from their products.
One line caught my attention at the end of Jacobs’ post: “It’s hard enough for people to leave Facebook or Instagram or Twitter behind; what’s almost impossible to leave behind is the person that those sites’ algorithmic behaviorism turned you into.”
Yes, that last section rings true. And this is what I worry about. Nearly a decade and a half of immersion in the world of blogging and even the limited engagement I have on social media has had an effect on me. It has made me more reactive and defensive, more hungry for social affirmation, more prone to evaluate the worth of my writing based on likes and statistics, more likely to write for a desired reaction rather than what I think is true or valuable.
I’ve come close to pulling the plug on Facebook many times over the past summer. There is nothing unique about my reasons: concern over how my data is being harvested and sold, the ubiquity of advertising, the maddening impenetrability of Facebook’s algorithms. Beyond that, I wonder why I willingly allow my attention to be coopted by a never-ending stream of what matters to other people. In my more lucid moments, the whole package seems like sheer madness, and I wonder why any of us perpetuate it. But then I see a few pictures of people I love, visit memories from the past and dissolve into a puddle of nostalgia. And Mark Zuckerberg keeps me shackled for a few more months.
But I do plan on simplifying my digital life this year. I will continue to post links to my blog posts on Facebook, as I know that this is how some people connect with my writing, and I’ll continue to engage in comments as I’m able. But this engagement will likely be more sporadic. I don’t always like who I’m becoming on social media, and I need to spend more time becoming someone better somewhere else.
Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge (Alta.) Mennonite Church. He writes at Rumblings.