During Lent and Passover, we are told to renounce: food, mostly, but bad habits too. One New York congregation, Romemu, has gone even further, arguing that email is virtual hametz, something to drop during Passover. I’m as compelled by the ebb and flow of cleanses and abstinence — followed and preceded by hedonism, of course — as any other Judeo-Christian American type. It’s kind of our thing, right?
But I tend to think that these “unplugging” directives are a step too far. Labeling anything sinful or even hametz gives it a moral value, which renders it too fraught — as Elissa Strauss noted, it’s kind of Puritan. Personally, I don’t think being connected online is a bad thing at all. Instagramming a moment is simply another way of being in that moment, particularly when you collaborate with a friend on a fun camera shot. It’s endearing, and breeds connectedness and cleverness. Casey Cep, a former unplugger, takes a very strong line against the unplugging movement for this very reason.
It suggests that the selves we are online aren’t authentic, and that the relationships that we forge in digital spaces aren’t meaningful. This is odd, because some of our closest friends and most significant professional connections are people we’ve only ever met on the Internet… Is it any less real when we fall in love and break up over Gchat than when we get fired over e-mail and then find a new job on LinkedIn?
This is fair, but there’s a part of me that thinks that a gung-ho “all in” approach is also too much. There are a few good reasons to occasionally “unplug” — not because anyone tells you to or because email is inherently bad — but because communicating and thinking through a variety of media is the spice of life.
One, anyone who has quarreled over gchat or email knows that a lot can get lost in translation. And anyone who has forgotten a camera when they see a beautiful sunset knows that the experience of watching that sun go down without recording it is a different one. Not better, not purer, just different. Sure, arguments can escalate in person just as much as online, online languages have evolved to make up for tone-misreading, and beauty isn’t more beautiful without a lens. Sure, sure. But focusing on other senses besides those engaged with our blinking screens can be important; the touch of a page, the feeling of the elements on our skin, all that cheesy but crucial stuff that can’t be confined to two dimensions.
Two, the effect that being online has on our brains is starting to be demonstrated — it definitely changes them. I have tried to make this small unplugging change because I have actually been horrified to find myself instinctively pressing an imaginary refresh button on my e-reader or on regular books to see if I have new email.
Three, finally, and the most complex reason. When we share something on social media, we’re constructing a representational self. Sure we do this offline too, but it’s more deliberate and conscious online. Ultimately this is a powerful and creative opportunity, but our online communities can sometimes feel like a garden of facades, each one representing only some aspects of life, for instance: this post about a fictional braggart writer who feels all too real. Our babies are cute, our articles are sold, our bosses are promoting us, our silliest and most emblematic pictures are shared. Sometimes we share the absolute worst things, too: losses, huge disappointments, or demands for hugs without explanation. Yet we do risk not spending enough time with our other selves, the ones who aren’t trying to phrase things pithily, pose for the most attractive selfies, and share curated moments with the world. The selves hanging out in sweatpants with loved ones, the selves with thoughts that just (to get Eastern about it for a second) float in, get noticed, and float back out without being immortalized in a Tweet.
So yes, flouncing off of Facebook is silly and denouncing social media is futile. And certainly, obnoxious brags about how we’ve unplugged are part of the problem. So if I could give any advice for navigating the plug in, plug out conundrum, I’d simply say, “Don’t unplug for a religious holiday or a ‘cleanse’ but do unplug for an hour. Take a walk without your phone. Don’t read Tweets or email just before bed. Close your eyes. Remember to live for your own approval, your own thumbs up, your own ‘likes.’”