I’m going to take a break from social media for a while. I was going to call it a sabbatical. But instead I’m going to use an old church term and call it a season of discernment.
I’ve taken breaks from social media before. In fact, when social media seemed a whole lot less problematic than it does now I used to take them regularly. Then, when it became more combative, the breaks became increasingly remedial; a time to heal.
Right now the problem isn’t that I need a break from social media. I’m not exhausted or exacerbated. There’s plenty wrong with Twitter, for example, but it isn’t directly making my life miserable.
Rather, the problem is I’m just not sure why I’m using social media any more.
I hear versions of this problem from other creatives as well. It’s usually expressed as “I’m not sure why I keep doing this.”
Not long ago the “why” was pretty easy to articulate. Instagram was a great place to showcase photographic work. Twitter was a place to showcase writing, to meet people in creative fields, and to obtain reliable information about the places where you live or places you intend to visit.
Over time, Instagram became a place to brag about your lifestyle, while the slogan “Debate me, bro” seems to sum up perfectly what Twitter has become.
What Is Discernment?
The host of the On Being podcast, Krista Tippet, recently wrote about a break the podcast took and some of the changes made as a result. She called it “The Pause” and it was intended as a time of rest but also a time to strategise. In her typical style, Krista had a wonderful way of phrasing what it meant,
“Coming out of the last few years, my colleagues and I went into discernment about the service that is distinctively ours in this world that is unfolding — so full of pain, so wild with promise.”
– Krista Tippet
That word “discernment” caught my eye. It’s typically used by churches when deciding on whether to appoint a new minister, or when a minster decides to accept a job offer or leave a church.
What’s being discerned is a new direction or path of action. Discernment means pausing to re-read the map of your soul, or look for divine guidance about the way to go.
This year, while considering when and how to take a break from social media, I was thinking of calling it a sabbatical. But discernment feels closer to what I’m hoping for. In particular, to paraphrase Tippet, “what is distinctively mine to offer given everything that is changing, for good and ill, right now.”
The Summer Effect
I’ve just returned after several weeks in Washington, D.C. My daughter graduated from college and I stayed on to help her pack. The length of my stay gave me lots of time to explore a surprisingly diverse and hip city which is blessed with some of the best museums and galleries in the world.
Time and again I found myself wondering what it meant to stop and recycle my experiences for the online consumption of others. Even the best smartphone photo is no match for the experience of seeing a Rembrandt or Van Gogh in person. And my efforts at sharing the vibe of the neighbourhoods I walked through felt so shallow.
And talking to shopkeepers and museum staff seemed so much more insightful than online interactions.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the people who still follow me on social media. But something has shifted. I no longer feel like I’m travelling with a digital community alongside me.
What Will Discernment Look Like?
In recent months I’ve been trying out Twitter alternatives such as Bluesky and T2. But I can’t really explain why, beyond pointing to their existence and then waving my arms around while muttering something about Twitter’s inevitable decline.
That’s what a lack of discernment feels like. Just joining things because they exist. Participating because others are participating. Having no clear sense of what flourishing in a space looks like, or what kind of pay-offs would justify the time invested.
Discernment is about being clear on the changes you want to make and the reasons why you are making them. I’m reminded of Sarah Haider’s words about “mental hygiene” in The News Is Bad For You. Stop Reading It,
“I’ve been thinking about this and other ways to retain some semblance of mental hygiene in the modern world. We are experiencing radical changes in our environment — why are we so hesitant to make radical changes in our behavior?”
— Sarah Haider
What I want to feel, and I do mean physically feel, is what the absence of social media means in my life. What do I miss? What hole does it fill? What state of mind am I looking for when I go online or look at screens?
I’m reminded it’s not 2013 anymore. There was a time when social media created work opportunities, helped generate friendships, was a reliable path to local knowledge. But that story feels old now.
How Long Will This Season Last?
I’m curious to experience what happens when I take the questions and conversations I used to post on social media to other places. I’m increasingly drawn to closed communities for some of those needs, like The London Writers’ Salon, or course-based communities like Notion Mastery and Obsidian University. I’ve moved a lot of conversations with friends to messages.
I’m even writing letters and postcards again!
When I was considering this, my first thought was to take a break for the entire third quarter of this year (July to September). Then I considered making it one month.
But I’m not sure that setting a specific length of time matters. It will probably be at least a few weeks but not past the end of the year. This is probably one of those I’ll-know-when-I-know kind of things.
I don’t even think that being entirely absent matters, either. If I see a beautiful sunset and want to share a picture, or get something published and share the link, then why not just do it?
After all, part of what I’m questioning, what I’m trying to discern, is how much the anxieties and obsessions and rules matter any more. I want this period of discernment to be playful and experimental. After all, if it’s no longer fun, then why do it at all?