Reflections and Musings

Thomas a Kempis and Facebook

photoWhen I picked up The Imitation of Christ this morning, I didn’t expect anything    groundbreaking. That’s more an indictment of the reader than the book, but I had read the book previously and am returning to it to develop some notes and questions for a class this fall. 

Then somewhere in the middle of Book I, the words leaped off the page, out of the fifteenth century, into the present:

Happy is he who can cast away every cause of distraction and bring himself to the one purpose of holy compunction…Busy not thyself with the affairs of others, nor entangle thyself with the business of great men. Keep always thine eye upon thyself first of all, and give advice to thyself specially before all thy dearest friends. If thou hast not the favour of men, be not thereby cast down, but let thy concern be that thou holdest not thyself so well and circumspectly, as becometh a servant of God and a devout monk. –Book I, 1.2-3

Alright, so there’s exclusively masculine language and a lot of “ths” and “thy-s.” But behind that surface there is a straight forward admonishment regarding social media.

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Photo Credit: Marco Paköeningrat

When I read “busy not thyself with the affairs of others,” Facebook immediately came to mind.

Now, I’ll assume for the sake of this post that you, dear reader, are not like me. You don’t aimlessly scroll through your newsfeed until you reach the last point at which you began scrolling. You don’t refresh your Twitter feed when its tweeted out. You don’t scroll through the never-ending image/gif yellow brick road that is Tumblr.

I know you don’t, because I don’t either.

Or at least I’d like to think I don’t. But I’m definitely guilty as charged on the first two counts, less so on the third (unless it’s Arrested Development or Parks and Rec or…it’s not important)

The thing is, after I’ve scrolled through my newsfeed for the fifth time in a day, I wonder where that time went. What did I miss happening around me? Which of the gazillion books on my to-read list could I have looked over during those moments? Why don’t I have…err, make…time for prayer, silence, solitude?

Well, turns out, I’m not alone. An article I stumbled upon–People like Facebook because it’s like gambling by Alexis Madrigal–focuses on “the machine zone” effect produced by slot machines and Facebook scrolls alike. The whole article is worth the read. The gist of the argument is that slot machines have been adapted to keep people playing. Slot machine designers know why most people play their games: “It’s not about winning; it’s about getting into the zone.”

Photo credit: Rob Boudon

Photo credit: Rob Boudon

And a similar thing happens on Facebook/Social media outlet of your choice. Clicking through five-years’ worth of your friends’ life in a photo album. Endlessly scrolling newsfeed, twitter feed, discover feed, whatever. The point is not to disparage social media altogether. If you’re keeping in touch with an out-of-town friend you’re not in the machine zone. But most of my social media use is machine-zone central.

And my time is probably better spent elsewhere. Madrigal imagines a kind of break out of the zone message from social media (similar to the Wii’s “Go outside and play”): A site could encourage a different ethic of consumption. To be a little absurd: Why not post a sign after someone has looked through 100 pictures that says, “Why not write a friend or family member a note instead?”

I don’t know what being overly concerned with the affairs of others looked like in a Kempis’ day. Maybe drastically different, but maybe just a little lower tech.

At the end of the day, I think the take-away is the same: Less time concerned with others or in the machine zone means less lost minutes. Maybe this leads to more time in prayer, more time for coffee with a friend, more time to walk the dog, read that book, or just more time for a couple moments of self-examination and gratitude for the gifts I’ve been given, instead of wishing I was chilling on the beach with the rest of the Instagram world.

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