Saturday, December 10, 2016

12/10: Steven Church, The Enemy of Nuance (or Why I Took a FaceBreak)

Almost a year ago I posted one of those annoying Facebook status updates announcing that I was taking a break from Facebook—a Facebreak--which is sort of like yelling on your neighborhood street-corner that you plan to quit yelling on your neighborhood street-corner. I’m not sure I’d truly considered the implications of this decision, but I’d been stewing over it for a while, openly discussing the possibility with my partner; and it just seemed the time to make a change. As we now approach the Holiday Season again, the advent on January 21 of a new national nightmare, and the often unbearable march of “news,” I find myself returning to some of these impulses to retreat from the social media stage.

Ultimately my decision at the time was somewhat impulsive, but it didn’t come easily, without conflict. I’ve regularly professed my love for Facebook, which as my teenage son tells me, “is for old people.” But I’ve made great friends through the social media platform, and I’ve expanded my awareness of many issues, movements, books, essays and ideas. I’ve been outraged and enlightened. I’ve made invaluable professional connections and forged strong relationships with people whom I consider colleagues, often individuals I’ve never met in person.

I confess that don’t really like Twitter because it feels too fast for me or too brief or too meme-dominated; and again I understand that it’s mostly because I just don’t know how to use it well or don’t understand the codes and secret language of tweets as well as I should. But if Facebook is like shouting on a street-corner in your own insular neighborhood, Twitter feels to me like shouting through a megaphone in the Mall of America, hoping a couple of people will walk by and give you a thumbs up or make a heart-shape with their hands.

That being said, I’ve also openly mocked colleagues, friends, or family who claim, “I don’t do social media,” as if you can just opt out of this huge part of our contemporary culture. But maybe you can. Maybe quitting really is that easy. Maybe all you have to do is delete the app on your phone and the tab in your internet browser. And maybe nobody really cares if you’re there or not, and the whole engine just cranks on inevitably and eternally like one of those perpetual motion machines where the balls just clack against each other forever until someone stops the noise.

I realized I’d become both too dependent on Facebook and too troubled by what I encountered there. It wasn’t just that I was wasting time. That seems inevitable. I felt like I was wasting away as an individual human being. I had trouble remembering things that didn’t happen on Facebook; and I found myself reading, writing, and thinking in terms of what I could post on Facebook. I have trouble sleeping through the night, anyway, but when I’d wake at 3 a.m. to use the bathroom, I’d hunker there in the dark checking Facebook status updates. I needed a break. So I quit. My page was still there, still active. I just didn’t look at it for a while, maybe a little over a month or so.

It sounds a little crazy, but I felt changed after I quit. Lighter somehow. On the simplest level, there was something very liberating about taking a picture of my daughter and not having to think about where I was going to share it, tag it, label it, or how I might caption it with a clever quip. I could just be with my kids without having to document that I’d been with them. I could vacation without proving it with selfies and action shots of my kids at play.

I also just had more time on my hands. . . like a LOT more time—so much so that I began to understand how Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the other forms of social media kill time through the “death by a thousand paper cuts” method; and it is this sort of death for which the writer is unusually susceptible, lonely as they are in the practice of craft and craving as they often are for outside affirmation. The demise of free time through social media, though, is a seductive and slow death, not altogether unpleasant, kind of like a heroin overdose. It’s the quiet deadening of one’s senses, a kind of compression of thinking that, in the end, leaves you a diminished but still sexy and popular husk of your former self.

It’s hard to explain. But after stepping back from the social media stage, I felt more engaged with the wider world, more able to just LIVE, and less concerned with how I was going to broadcast discrete chunks of that living to a social group that I rarely saw or talked to in person. I realized that I’d grown exhausted with all the effort required to maintain a social media persona, an avatar of myself that was not myself but was instead a performance of Steven Church.

That Steven Church is a filtered, exaggerated, and necessarily limited version of who I am as a person, a writer, a father, an editor, and a professor. On Facebook, Steven Church is the kind, intelligent and liberal Dad. Steven Church is a beer-loving nonfiction nerd who appreciates literature and books almost as much as he appreciates every single thing his precocious, genius, art-making children do or say. That Steven Church is a dog lover, a music lover, and a sports lover who also happens to teach the most amazing, hardworking, and talented students on the planet. All of these things are true. But it’s also true that I can be a short-tempered, preoccupied asshole who just wants some peace and quiet from his annoying children, his noisy dogs, and his overly demanding students. I just don’t broadcast this version of Steven Church. Thus my social media persona, like any persona we adopt in life or on the page, is a lie of omission and exaggeration. And I regularly adopt personas on the page in the service of essaying some kind of idea. But I guess I’d grown tired of my simple social media persona, even if that lie, that Steven Church persona, was in many ways, a “better” version of the real Steven Church; because to live that lie is to live a life of constant existential dissonance and alienation. In real life I’ll never be as good as that Steven Church, the one in the Facebook profile, a guy who isn’t terribly interested in nuance or conflict.

I also realized how dependent I’d become on online affirmation of the most basic thought, quip, quote, shared video, essay or picture of my kids, even my most ridiculous and inane status update or post; and, further, how rather easy this affirmation is to come by if you craft your online persona and perform in a way that doesn’t invite serious thought, criticism, or critique (something I’m still not convinced can actually occur in a comment feed). I guess what it came down to, as well, was a belief that there was something fundamentally un-essayistic about social media, and I’m mostly interested in the essay as an art form. Even if you court an online image of the Socratic gadfly, and you intentionally post provocative or controversial things, or especially if you’re a “troll,” who lives to antagonize with impunity, then you’re never really forced to confront yourself in a truly critical way. You can always find a group online where your opinion feels like the majority one, or where your counter-opinion has the power to elicit impassioned and polarizing responses that mostly serve to edify your original belief or opinion while your “friends” and followers denounce any counter argument and shout down any detractors. And while this affirmation and edification is, of course, empowering; the true essayist isn’t perhaps as interested in edification and affirmation as he is in nuanced thinking of complicated questions.

Thus, I’ve increasingly come to believe that social media is the enemy of nuance and fundamentally anti-essayistic, such that the sensational and simplistic click-bait version of reality dominates over a more quiet, patient, and careful consideration of an issue or an idea. I realize, of course, that for every point I’m arguing, one could pull up, in an instant, a thousand-and-one examples to the contrary; and part of me hopes that any response to this argument will serve also to confront my own current beliefs about the anti-essayistic nature of social media, which are, admittedly, half-formed ideas at this point and shaped as much or more by the liberating rush of walking away as they are by serious thinking or research into the effects of social media on human thought and interaction (no, I haven’t read that book, The Shallows, but it’s on my shelf). I realize that I sound like a curmudgeon. But as I get older and grow more hair in my ears, I’m increasingly willing to wear that cardigan sweater and play the role of the grump, perhaps because that persona is closer and closer to the real me these days.

In the end, though, I fell off the wagon. Big surprise. It’s hard to quit for good. Social media is too easy, too seductive, and has a way of convincing you that you need it to survive. I’m also a writer with a book out this Fall and, as any publisher, editor, or publicist will tell you, having a social media “platform” is extremely important for a writer. You have to put yourself out there, or at least a version of yourself that seems attractive, intelligent, and interesting. They know that many people buy books based on the author’s social media presence and persona. They buy books because they like the public performance of you as author.

So as I now stare down another Holiday Season and clear memory space on my I-phone for pictures of my precocious children, I know there will be a moment or two where I consider walking away again and taking another Facebreak. But then, later that day, as we’re celebrating my daughter’s birthday, I’ll post a photo or a selfie of me and her to Instagram, and a bunch of people will like it, physically distant friends and family who might never be able to otherwise share in this moment, and I’ll feel warm and fuzzy, edified and affirmed all over again.


Steven Church is the author of five books of nonfiction, most recently One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals. He is a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State, where he is the Hallowell Professor of Creative Writing.


  1. Well. I guess this was affirming in two ways for me - in my continued decision to stay social media free (I liked playing the Socratic gadfly and my friends appreciated it but still it felt so fake on there, I was starting to really dislike my own friends). I also have a chronic illness and find a lot of things stressful when it's flaring - and Facebook was so unbelievably stressful. That combo of fake and stressful just did my head in.

    But the second reason this post was affirming was that I feel happy, right now, that I *don't* have a book deal. All that extra responsibility on a writer. It's criminal to me.

  2. I find the discussion of the Facebook persona interesting, and it's a presentation that comes naturally. Even as it's another persona to maintain . . . And, as you say, maybe antithetical to the more complex ones writers create.