On a Twitter Detox

In some respects, my decision this Christmas to avoid using Twitter for a few days has come to feel a little like dealing with a personal and collective addiction. The readiness with which people turn to their phones on first waking and in all the subsequent gaps of their day is a commonplace, our twitchiness for the comforting phone readily observable in trains, shops, and on the streets. Even though I am now abstaining from Twitter, I still find myself holding on to the phone after the alarm is silenced, before remembering that it is no longer allowed to give me any sense of connectedness to the world-beyond-the-physically-present, or the immense hit of self-delight that comes from seeing some flash banality liked or re-tweeted by a follower, or a follower’s follower.

I also miss hugely the opportunity of joining in a conversation about the news (‘snarking about current affairs’, as it was recently described), and the immense fun of trying to guess what the news is, simply by reading the Tweets. I enjoy approaching explosion-point, filling with a highly flammable mixture of dudgeon and disbelief, until deflated by a visit to the BBC news app for the sad confirmation that This was not said at all. This was not it at all.

The advice to carry out a periodic social media detox came, inevitably, in a tweet — from no less an authority than the Revd Richard Coles, himself the epitome of the successfully tweeting #simple country parson and, with his 92,000 followers, the undisputed cynosure of every Revd Tweep. So his was advice I was very happy to take seriously: #knows his onions.

I was in any case beginning to tire of some aspects of the medium, notably the experience of drowning in words and images, and the attendant fear of ignoring them, just in case any of them turned out to be really important (#chance would be a fine thing). So I have acquired an anxious guilt about subjects-not-addressed and knowledge-not-acquired, while languishing on study-shelves are hundreds of neglected books. You remember them: beautiful things, produced by genuine experts after a long process of education, reflection and peer review. #Sorely missed.

There have also been some specifically clerical issues I’ve had to deal with. Twitter seems particularly adept at bringing out the worst in the clergy; in me certainly. Now, I quite understand that much of the unpalatable boasting, somewhat formulaic listing of our day’s engagements, and painfully forced optimism is driven entirely by insecurity in our X-Factor C of E, and the need to show the talent-pool-attendants that someone’s omission from its bracing waters is sheer madness; but, oh, it gets tiresome.

The problem is that it’s all too easy. Armed with a laptop and a smartphone, we are all now a one-man, one-woman publishing-house, binding every homily in virtual calfskin and depositing it in the stack of every virtual library across the globe, its profound riches ready to save the day when the darkness finally falls. (Even I do this, and I’ve never written sermons down or encouraged people to read them. “If you’ve got time to read sermons, don’t read me; read Chrysostom!” has always been my line. But Twitter and the blog awaken the irresistible hope of discovering that I am, in fact, Timothy Radcliffe locked inside the wrong body; and so I entertain this damn foolishness, as fond and flimsy a thing as imagining my feckless Mog to be one of the Talking Beasts of Narnia.)

To make matters seriously worse, we are also now our own recording studio, broadcasting organisation and publicity machine. We can issue our own New Year messages with our amusing yet sincere pieces-to-camera shot against a tasteful background of books or trees or family snaps. After all, the bishops all do it. And who knows? It just has to fall into the hands of the right talent-scout and we too will be plucked from hateful obscurity, set aside for stardom, for the utterance, one day, of the immortal words, “Good morning, John. Good morning, Sarah.”

In avoiding Twitter, I miss none of this. Neither do I miss for a second the other oddnesses of St Tweet’s: the improbable flirting and ill-advised swearing (even with the neutralising safety-catch of inverted commas); I don’t miss the endless references to alcohol (complete with photographs), which I imagine the archdeacons to be noting in the back of an old exercise-book ready for next year’s appraisal. I don’t miss the peculiar camp giggle of formerly sensible evangelicals who seem to have become enamoured of the very worst sort of high church rococo, getting all frisky at one flash of a missal-ribbon or ring of charcoal.

But who am I kidding? For, you see, with all Twitter’s faults, I’ve missed the company these past twelve days, and have already been drawn to an occasional key-hole or to listen at a side-door. Twitter is, you see, another strange expression of our peculiar common life, one more body for critical belonging-to. Social media are exactly what they say they are: ways and means of interacting with people. And if the interactions are in some ways problematic, then we need to receive and exercise in the virtual world the same grace we rely on in the real world.  We need to learn to operate in a social medium without getting too vexed or involved. We need to see our friends’ wonderful deposits of suggested reading without coveting or anxiety. We need to get in a good stock of salt to scatter a pinch every time some apparently smug leader with perfect teeth makes a movie or preaches to a multitude or takes possession of a wonderful new ‘worship centre’. We need, in short, to relax a bit. Yes, I’m sure you have just written a wonderfully interactive liturgy for the immuring of an anchorite or the exorcism of an intranet, but such things are way too rich for my blood, so I’ll take a rain check if that’s okay. #simple matins boy

So, I’ll be glad to be back, catching up on who’s in, who’s out; and enjoying the wry humour of those with enough faith and confidence not to need to pretend each day is sunny. I’ll wander round with a mug of tea and a couple of Bakewell slices, bumping into lovely people for a couple of minutes’ chat. And I will remember that the best medicine for soul and body is gratitude for all God’s blessings; for family and friends, my parish and school, even this challenging town and nation. The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground, and if I am conscious of the immensity of that, it will take more than the odd twitter irritation ‘to pull me off / The great perch of my contentment.’

Richard Coles was right: even a short detox is a great idea and a necessary corrective, flushing away the poison and renewing one’s whole vision. I can certainly recommend it, if only because it’ll spare you the sight of me for a while. Happy tweeting; and have a good new year!

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