In the past few years, I’ve noticed a growing trend in Lenten disciplines: 40 days without Facebook. It seems, at first glace, to be an honourable task, and I hope that those who have made the commitment find it meaningful in their paschal journeys. However (you knew there was a but, didn’t you?) having made my share of misguided promises in Lents gone by, I wonder if giving up on social networking can really guarantee the quietness of mind and depth of relationships that some perceive it can.
People use social networks for many different purposes: subscribing to news feeds, coupon clipping, gossiping, bullying, building a public image, maintaining close ties with friends and family, supporting others, doing ministry. Stepping away from some of those activities for a time of reflection is a good idea, and could be an experience that transforms the way one uses digital communication. But I worry about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Social networking is not a computer gadget or gimmick. It’s a means of communication. And by abstaining from communication, we abstain from community.
A few weeks ago, in a Twitter chat regarding the church and social media in Canada (#chsocmca), one participant made a brilliant observation: relationships are relationships. It’s easy to draw lines between physical relationships and “virtual” relationships, as if written words matter less than spoken words, or as if we are able to check our emotions at the door each time we turn the computer on. But I think we all know that isn’t true.
Don’t get me wrong. Social networks can’t replace face-to-face communication. Rather, they can augment it, and help us overcome geographical and financial barriers to communication, just as the telephone did. And I do think that silence and solitude are important elements of our lives, especially during this season of reflection and self-examination. Movements like Sabbath Manifesto are on to something: being plugged in all the time isn’t healthy, for the same reason that being around people all the time is exhausting. Too often, we ignore the amount of time Jesus spent alone in prayer and reflection, finding ourselves stunned by the Lenten silence.
If you’re questioning your use of social networking this Lent, take heart. Perhaps what you’re seeking isn’t a gadget or trend. Perhaps you’re craving community: the supportive relationships that can be found and fostered by any means of communication. What if this Lent, we committed ourselves to using social networks to support one another? To build each other up? To do mission? What would that look like?