Breaking up is hard to do: thoughts on leaving Facebook

This week I quit using Facebook. For a number of years I’ve used it as a platform for spreading information I thought was worthwhile: mostly around nonviolence, Afghanistan, and Christian discipleship. But for some time I’ve had some questions about the effect it’s having (not new thoughts, questions long posed by many others), and decided it was time to finish.

This was my last status update:

So, I promised myself that when I finished at Urban Seed I would also be finished with Facebook…so, so long and thanks for all the memories. If you want to get in contact with me, you can email me or get my snail mail address or phone number so we can write or talk to each other. Better yet, come hang out with me at GraceTree Community. I’ll leave this account active, and might check in occasionally, but for the most part this won’t be a reliable way to get in contact with me anymore. I hope that over the years I might’ve contributed something to your life through this medium, and I hope that I’ll see you again in real life.

My friend Marcus then emailed asking a series of questions:

Why the connection with leaving Urban Seed? is this about stage of life/work change?. The best stuff u offer seems quite distinct from your urban seed focus. Your posts are good share material from your unique mix of nonviolence research, networks and circles that many of us don’t access easily. This makes you an important leader in this movement. Are you continuing with this work and if so why not share it in this way? Is this a theological response to disembodied digital connections, a response to ‘clictiv/slacktiv-ism’ or are you just sick of the haters and people posting cat pictures? will u even be reading this??? πŸ˜‰

I thought it was worth giving a significant response to those questions, so emailed the following back to him. I then thought it might be worth sharing more widely, so am posting it here in case other folks are interested.

Hey Marx…hehe…how long you got?!

The Urban Seed connection was just that I was doing social media for Urban Seed, so until I finished there I couldn’t exactly stop using FB completely…so yeah, nothing to do with the focus, it’s just something I’ve been wanting to do for ages and finishing at the Seed seemed like a good moment. To be honest it’s a relief. When it begins to feel like a burden and is liberating to stop…that’s a pretty good indication right there that something’s been wrong.

It is in the context of my making lots of significant changes in terms of where I put my energy/time etc at the moment. Finding myself drawn towards prayer and solitude and away from technology. I spend way too much of my life with a screen in front of me. I keep coming back to Thomas Merton, who had more impact on people as a hermit than he ever would have otherwise. His impact wasn’t despite being a hermit, but precisely because of the life of prayer and contemplation that he drew from.

This societal dependence on one piece of technology – particularly one controlled by a large corporation – seems to me to be hugely problematic. I realised that if I’m not on FB, there’s a lot of events I wouldn’t even know about. How is it that we’ve allowed this one website to mediate our lives in such a way? What does it mean when the new ‘marginalised’ means those not on Facebook (and ironically, the “old” marginalised are?!)? What does it mean that we complain about the Coles/Woolworths duopoly or the Labor/Liberal two-party system but not about the monopoly of Facebook for mediating social relationships? Is there life after (or outside of) Facebook? (I suspect there is. :))

Another factor (more an annoyance than anything) was the constant changes…you just get used to one way of doing things and they change again. Plus erosion of privacy, boundaries, etc. I don’t like that one corporation has that much information on me. Not because I’m ashamed of any of it, just because I don’t know who they are and they don’t know who I am. That’s stuff that used to be the domain of human memory, mediated through relationship, shared experience, friendship, fondness, etc. Now it’s marketed as a commodity.

What does it mean that a website can store and own your whole history (admittedly whatever history you put on there, but the barriers to sharing are being constantly eroded)? At the very least I want to stop and think about that kind of thing, and that requires some distance.

Technology itself is to an extent, I’m coming to realise, dehumanising in and of itself – an attempt to escape our human limits and vulnerabilities. I’ve had a growing realisation the more I do NVDA that technology most often (perhaps not always) obscures the human factor that is transformative. The more technology, the more problematic. Partly because it’s bound to fail, so dependence on it is a bit silly. But also because it distracts people from the purity of will, bodies, intention. That’s where the power of nonviolent action is – in vulnerability. I think that’s also where life is most potent.

Another factor was the links/posts themselves – we have more information than ever but I wonder if we are more informed? To what extent is information inward formation (and for better or worse)? Do we give information enough time to do its inward formation work on us or is it just washing over us because of the sheer volume? Or do we listen only to that which reinforces our existing beliefs? What does the constant stream of ‘stuff’ – much of it minutiae – do to us? Some days I find myself anxious about the sheer amount of stuff I want to read online, and simply don’t have the time to. That can’t be good. John Dear has been telling me for years: don’t read the paper. Read the saints. I’ve tried that at times, but always come back to the paper. I’m a slow learner. (I also keep coming back to the saints. :))

So I guess you could say I didn’t so much get sick of the haters and cat pictures as the noise – the sound of my own voice as much as others’.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly a place for being informed – and I’m of the kind of temperament that I don’t think I’ll ever act without being well informed, but I think the kind of volume churning through there is excessive. It’s easier to stop than it is to slow down.

And yeah, the disembodied/slacktivism aspect is a factor. Mostly FB didn’t seem to me to be translating into action in others – and where it was translating into action for people, Facebook wasn’t the crucial factor (thank God – if it ever became the crucial factor that would be even more problematic). And yes, that is a big part of the point of posting those links. Jesus doesn’t just want to change your opinions, he wants all of you. I’m not convinced that FB can facilitate that process. I suspect the medium breeds expression of opinion rather than action.

To be perfectly honest I also didn’t think anyone much was listening anymore…with a combination of FB virality algorithms you never know who is seeing what, and it seems like those who interact and therefore see your posts are those who agree anyway. Felt like preaching to the converted.

As I say it’s been coming for a while so although it seems to have been a surprise for a lot of people it wasn’t a split second decision…To be honest I was trying to make as little a deal of it as possible! I was going to write a blog post about all the reasons, but it just felt weird writing a whole bunch of longwinded justifications (like I’m doing here!) for not using a website anymore! I do seem to have underestimated the value people place on my role there though, which has taken me by surprise. At the same time, some people’s reaction to it disturbs me a little as well – almost more like I’ve died than just stopped using a website. I’m still alive, and still the same person. If people want to contact me, they can. In fact, I’d be delighted.

The other thing I’ve struggled with is the public nature of the medium. What does it mean to not let your left hand know what the right is doing when every meal or coffee you consume, every event in your day, is instagrammed for public display? What does it mean for nuance and independent thought when every political opinion is plastered over a meme and ‘shared’ 46,000 times? What are the lines between information sharing, boasting, and straight out propaganda? Where’s the line between “letting your light shine before others” and not “practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them”? I’m not sure I know anymore. Does anyone even care?

Finally, it’s the question of whose desires ‘run’ me…I’m glad my posts have been valued, but I don’t think I should allow others’ desires to run mine. There’s only one Other whose desires I want to run me, and if I spend more time listening to the louder voices instead of the still small one I’m going to have a hard time being ‘run’ by the latter.

It’s given me a small profile, that I confess I wonder if I’m ‘wasting’ by getting out completely…but then I think about the Holy Transfiguration community, and their choice to live in obscurity, and I feel drawn to that kind of integrity, that kind of kenosis, that emptying of ego. In the end I ask myself: “Is there anything worth having that I’m giving up by quitting Facebook?” And I honestly can’t think of enough to justify staying, or that I couldn’t do better in other ways.

My hope is that, whatever leadership I offer in terms of this movement (as you put it), it can be done better off Facebook than on…through real face to face relationships where conversations and mutual aid can take place. It’s less “efficient” in terms of reaching fewer people in a smaller geographical area, but then a) efficiency is not a gospel concept and b) perhaps a more significant impact on fewer people is not such a bad tradeoff. But of course, I don’t need to tell you about the value of small and local. πŸ™‚ So yes, I’m intending not just to continue in this work but to do so more slowly, more deliberately. Maybe less effectively, maybe more – I don’t know, but at least more humanly.

And I guess insofar add I have any leadership role to offer it’s not because of Facebook but because of what I have offered and will continue to offer in terms of a life of faithful discipleship. That will remain accessible, just the bar for access is slightly higher (not necessarily a bad thing).

All of which sounds horribly preachy. But then what can I say: I’m a preacher.

It may end up being a hiatus. Time will tell.

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14 thoughts on “Breaking up is hard to do: thoughts on leaving Facebook

  1. Thanks Simon, for this thoughtful reflection – it resonates, and at the same time, ironically, I want to use FB to post it so others can read it!… I think I will, cos I think many are feeling stressed by the burden and expectations of social media. I spoke at a contemplative retreat for yr 12 girls recently and one girl looked at me and said with sadness: “I wish I was born 20 yrs ago so I didn’t have to use all this technology just to function in this world, it’s too stressful, I can’t handle it….” I reckon there’s huge issues ahead for our young digital natives who are starting to feel overwhelmed and have their relationships suffer…
    In order to try to keep a clarity in my head and not feel (too) overwhelmed I have 2 full days a week where I don’t use social media, and we go regularly for solitude/meditation in a kind of monastic setting, and living here in the bush helps (I have barely spoken to a person in a week), and I find all of that intentional silence is necessary to balance the noise of everyone yelling at each other on FB/Twitter…
    One of My teachers, John Main said “in meditation/silence you know who you are, because you are who you are…” as opposed to other people telling you who you are or should be – I certainly feel that silence is necessary for me to keep perspective…
    I would love to give it all up too, but am struggling with the point you made about getting out info and advocacy stuff, and feeling an obligation to do that… in fact when I look at others, I think maybe I should be doing more, learn how to use this ‘app’ or that one, but deep down I have no real desire to do so, just the feeling of obligation to do so to keep up with everyone else and not be left behind and have my voice lost…but as you say, Hermits are amazing teachers because they have withdrawn….(I love hermits!)
    Lot’s to think about, the birds outside are chirping, think I’ll shut down and go listen to them thanks Simon – look forward to visiting Gracetree sometime soon… pace e bene!

  2. Hey Donna – thanks so much for your response. I don’t think it’s a black and white thing, and it sounds like you have good boundaries around it. As you can see, I have more questions than answers.

    Your story about the schoolgirl is so sad – sad, and yet not surprising to me. What stress for young people to have to deal with, particularly when it feels like such high stakes!

    Yes, I understand what you mean about the advocacy aspect – particularly as there are a couple of people who actually said to me that my posts had changed their mind on some things. I think part of this for me is being able to let go of feeling like I need to be the one who does that job. I have to keep reminding myself that don’t need to save the world, Jesus has already done that. All I can do is bear witness to that salvation while it works its way through to completion.

    John Main is a great inspiration – and works in well with James Alison’s Girard-inspired theology, which has in turn been hugely influential for me, hence the paragraph about whose desires “run” me…silence, solitude are the only conditions that make such listening possible.

    Would love to have you here anytime, let us know when you’re in Melbourne next. We can sit beside the Merri Creek, shoot the breeze, and just be. πŸ™‚

  3. Hey Simon!

    I left facebook more than a year ago and never looked back! I had serious addictive and self control issues. Couldn’t do uni work on the computer without having facebook going at the same time. Really encouraged by your thougts. So many of them exactly why I gave it up to. Yours are just expressed for more eloquently and it is much more obvious your depth of knowledge. Ha!

    But I am so greatly encouraged to hear of someone else doing the same thing. I think there is a growing consensus around the way facebook is actually destroying relationship and community amongst people. I think we will continue to see people rebelling against the use of it though… But considering that even in ‘The Social Network’, ‘Bolivia … They don’t have road, but they have facebook.’ I grow concerned that having facebook is going to be equated to having a passport or drivers licence. Our identities will cease to “be” but will only be defined through a moderated newsfeed that presents an extremely limited idea of who we are in totality.

    Already facebook is being used by the state to monitor people… Companies like facebook, woolworths, and coles through the use of rewards cards are able to sell your information to advertisers and companies so they can do better at marketing products to the public and continue our unsustainable consumerist capitalist culture. It deeply concerns me what is going to happen over the next 30 years as people become more dependent on things like facebook to communicate. The state loves monitoring people … Consider Labor’s latest legislation about holding onto people’s personal information online for at least two years.

    I’ve had friends who have said they actually feel like they have something to talk to me about now, because they are not constantly aware of what’s going on in my life because I’m not on facebook. I miss out on social events all the time. I have friends who get annoyed with me about it. But I am happy to wear the responsibility of all of that, because ironically I feel like getting rid of facebook gave me my life back… or maybe a better way to say that is Jesus got the back the part of me that was just online.

    Hope this time of leaving it behind is a MASSIVE blessing to you and your community!

    Andrew

  4. Hey Simon!

    Thanks so much for your witness. Your post has certainly challenged & got me thinking.

    There’s so much I agree with & a lot I feel I could say in response… Especially about our dependence on one piece of technology & who’s desire/s ‘runs’ us. I know for me this can be, at times, something I struggle with. And I constantly need to be ‘renewing my mind’ in terms of who’s desire/s I’m letting ‘run’ me, and where I find my identity. In terms of it becoming a burden at times, too… I can definitely identify with that. Your post has certainly challenged me to be more diligent in setting boundaries with social media.

    I do feel though that, especially with folks of my generation, social media can be harnessed for good. In terms of advocacy, generating constructive discussion (which leads to actual discussion ‘offline’), and challenging people’s pre-conceived notions about a whole bunch of things – what it means to authentically follow Jesus, Afghanistan, non-violence, etc etc. I can’t help but think of how I found out about the Swan Island Peace Convergence earlier this year too – through Facebook! And I can think of a whole bunch of other connections that have started via social media that have led to fruitful relationships ‘offline’, as well as action. Even something as simple as photos from Swan Island that were posted up… I had a number folks come up to me & ask about them, which gave me the opportunity to explain why, how it relates to my faith, & so on. As much as there’s a lot of negative things about social media (which so many people are oblivious too, as well), I feel that – again, especially with folks of my generation – it can be used for good. Maybe even to encourage people to be more intentional in their relationships, community, and so on. But I know that I need to be intentional in terms of the boundaries I set, how I use it (as well as how much), & how it’s influencing me.

    Anywho, just a few of my thoughts :). All the best & blessings with your role at GraceTree. I’d really love to come down & visit at some point in the not too distant future (and hopefully bring a few people along, too..). I’ve been in some exciting talks with a few folks up here in Syd about potentially beginning an intentional community somewhere in the inner city area. It’d be great to hang with you guys, & learn a bit more about the ins & outs of intentional Christian community.

    Peace,
    Shane πŸ™‚

    • Hey Shane, thanks for sharing your experience…I agree with you that many good things can come out of social media. Of course, I was involved for a long time for a reason! At some point you end up drawing lines and making choices in terms of what you will and won’t do. In the end, the question marks for me outweighed the value. Your experience may well be different.

      Would love to see you here anytime, and let’s keep in touch in other ways eh? πŸ™‚

  5. Pingback: Simon Moyle’s thoughts on leaving Facebook | Welcome to Soul Thoughts

  6. Hi Simon.

    Welcome back from the world of Face book (A world I have never been brave enough to enter).

    Great to see you made it out alive!!!

    Jim

  7. After avoiding Facebook for years (for many of the reasons you mentioned) I signed up a year ago in the hope that it might help me connect more easily with students I meet through our uni chaplaincy program. While I managed to add a fair few “friends”, I never effectively used it to kick-start friendships as I thought I would…

    It provided a fascinating insight into what a bunch of people in my life do with their time (that is, they spend it on facebook), and I tended to have a better understanding of what people I don’t know well have been up to (Hey, didn’t you go to Europe recently?), but the real depth of my connection with people has not increased.

    Also it turns out most of the events I used to fear missing out on without an account I now view as a bother to worry about – more notifications!

    After reading your post, and thinking about my year on the world’s biggest social network, I decided to delete your account.

    A project for me to pursue in the future: a hybrid social network / feed reader that in fact doesn’t show you the latest updates, but feeds you input from the ancient church fathers etc. Then my addiction to the refresh button could be funneled into something more useful πŸ™‚

    Thanks for the post Simon.
    Jason (Perth, WA)

      • Thanks Jason – this is really helpful. It’s interesting for me to reflect on the last few months, and the difference it’s made (overwhelmingly good!). Glad the above thoughts are useful for others too.

        Re: the church fathers facebook – love the idea – though I wonder if real books might not be better…otherwise I’d be liable to hit ‘refresh’ before I’d reflected to any depth!

        Thanks for sharing. πŸ™‚

  8. Read your blog at exactly the right time today, helped clear the fog in my head about how to articulate my love and hate relationship with Facebook. Thanks, and good luck listening to the still, small voice…hope to come visit soon x

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