There’s been a fair amount of smack directed my way on the ol’ internet lately. For those of you who haven’t been following the fun over at my Register blog, there was was this, then this, and this, and this, and this. I could list a bunch more examples, but you get the idea. Between all the posts, their comments, and the comments to some of my posts, I’ve read at least 1,000 nasty remarks directed at me in the past month alone.
A friend of mine recently marveled that I don’t seem bothered by it. Though she would never phrase it this way, I’m guessing what she was thinking was, Jen, you are one of the most prideful people I know, with the fortitude of a bowl of Jello and a disposition toward uncharitableness usually only seen in convicted felons and dictators. You seem like exactly the kind of person who would lose her mind over this kind of thing. So how is it that it’s not getting under your skin?
If that’s what my friend was thinking, she’d be right. I haven’t been too upset about this stuff, and that has nothing to do with natural virtuousness on my part. It’s just that I’ve had various blogs and websites since 2001, so I’ve had a lot of practice with it, and I’ve also been blessed with excellent spiritual direction that’s provided me with invaluable advice. Since anyone with a blog or a Facebook account deals with irritation originating from their computer monitor at least occasionally, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve found helpful:
8 Tips for Keeping Your Sanity with an Internet Connection
1. Learn to let people be wrong
On a practical level, this is probably both the most difficult and the most important tip. There are few things more exasperating than when you write a status update or a blog post and you receive critical responses, especially when they misconstrue your points and accuse you of saying things you never said. There are occasions when it’s worthwhile to defend yourself and clarify your position, but the longer I’m online, the less often I think that’s a fruitful exercise. Seven times out of ten, all your defensive response will do is prolong the argument and draw out new comments that were even more frustrating than the first ones.
The tough part is that, in order to let these conversations drop, you have to let people be wrong. You have to let unfair comments about yourself stand. You have to read harsh words that insult you personally, misrepresent your beliefs, attribute words to you that you never said…and you have to walk away. The good news is that this can really improve your spiritual life if you go about it prayerfully. (I’ll write more details about that in a future post.)
However you go about it, don’t skip this step, because your online interactions will only be peaceful to the extent that you’re at peace with other people being wrong.
2. Be prepared to apologize
…Then again, sometimes it’s you that’s wrong. And let’s face it: For those of us who aren’t exactly spiritual giants, apologizing sucks. It’s painful to say, “You are right, I was in error, and I’m sorry.” Yet the internet can really become a source of stress in your life if you have a fear of apologizing — the constant interaction that comes with new media means that it’s easier than ever to accidentally offend someone, and if you automatically jump into defensive mode every time someone says you’re in error, it’s going to drive you crazy. Per tip #1, oftentimes the right response is no response; but when an apology is called for, it’ll bring a lot of peace to you and to others if you’re able simply to say “I’m sorry” and move on.
3. When you unplug, unplug all the way
I’ve found it to be really important to have hard stops for my online interactions. Most of us have daily “unplugged” time where we just hang out with our families or take time to ourselves, but it’s tempting to keep one foot in the online world, e.g. glancing at email while the water boils for dinner, getting distracted by the ding of the iPhone during prayer time, etc. I recommend scheduling offline time as part of your daily routine, and making sure you unplug all the way during that time — no sneak peaks at your computer or phone.
4. Plan to lose all your followers
For bloggers especially, there’s a big temptation to fixate on the number of people who are reading your stuff. It’s understandable since nobody likes to write into a vacuum, but caring too much can put you on a dangerous path. If you notice a dip in your number of readers after writing a certain post, you’ll feel tempted to avoid that topic in the future, even if it was exactly what God wanted you to say; on the other hand, if some post gets a huge, positive response that nets lots of new traffic, you’ll be tempted to write things like that more often, regardless of whether it’s really fruitful content. I’ve found it freeing to adopt and attitude that goes something like this:
I’m going to think and pray about what I’m supposed to be writing, and write that. It is probably going to be either inane and boring, or offensive and controversial, and, either way, everyone will unsubscribe from my blog in disgust and I’ll have no readers other than a couple of friends who only check in out of guilt.
And then I try to avoid looking at my traffic and followers stats as much as possible. It’s surprisingly freeing to just assume that you won’t gain any new readers, and let yourself be pleasantly surprised if anything else happens.
5. Protect your inbox
For anyone who has blog comments or social media updates emailed to them, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you set up a filter on your email program so that those updates are marked as read and moved to their own folder without even hitting your inbox.
It’s important to control when you step into the online world, rather than having the internet follow you around when you’re trying to do other things. You should be able to get on email without being distracted by the latest comment on your Pinterest pin or some response you got on your Facebook wall. Having it all moved to separated folders allows you to engage in social media on your own terms. You can wait to read through those folders when you’re in a good mood and in a place of peace, rather than having a bunch of updates shoved in your face when you’re simply trying to dash out a quick email to your mom. Aside from helping you not get riled up by negative interactions, it’ll also help cut down the sheer amount of time you spend distracted by online stuff.
(If your main method of communication is texting or messaging instead of email you might set things up a little differently, but the concept still applies: Separate social media feedback from your main methods of daily communication with friends and loved ones.)
6. Put your vocation first
I actually started this post writing about this point alone: Your vocation will keep you sane. The mundane tasks you engage in to serve your family will act as a lesson in humility, a strong dose of perspective, and a chance to reconnect with God, all rolled into one. (And I’m using “family” broadly here; if you’re single or a consecrated religious, that could mean your parish community, your extended family, your order, etc.) There’s something about getting into a heated online discussion, especially if it was triggered by something you wrote, that can make you feel like WHAT I HAVE TO SAY IS IMPORTANT, and I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN DELIVER THIS MESSAGE. Honestly, I doubt Winston Churchill took himself as seriously when giving wartime addresses to England as I have responding to anonymous blog commenters sometimes.
Thankfully, there is a lot of mundane work that goes along with my vocation: I might feel like sitting in front of my computer and saying Important Things about truths that will be lost forever if I do not single-handedly deliver them to the internet, but instead I have to go fold laundry, mix up tonight’s casserole, change the baby’s diaper, read a book with the kids, and sweep the floor. It’s in those moments that I get the much-needed reminders of what the purpose of my life is (i.e. that it does not involve sitting in front of a glowing screen) and where God really needs me. There’s nothing better than humble manual labor in the service of those you love to remind you that your pithy remarks and clever commentary are not the most important things you have to offer the world.
7. Remember that 99.9999999% of the world doesn’t care
One of the most dangerous aspects of the internet, social media in particular, is that it filters for everything that is not about you: You log on to Facebook and see a flood of people who know you; you look at your blog traffic stats and see only other sites that are talking about you; you Google yourself and, with a few keystrokes, the billions of websites that couldn’t care less about you are wiped away, and you see only a list of folks who are thinking about something you did or said. Especially if you’re getting a big response to something you wrote, it’s surprisingly easy to feel like all 5 billion people on the face of the planet have simultaneously stopped what they’re doing to ponder your status updates. And then you’re back in the mode of feeling like you must SAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT because EVERYONE CARES. (You can tell I’m speaking from experience here.)
A good exercise to combat this is to go to some public place (even just driving down a busy road is fine), look around, and remind yourself: Not a single one of these people reads my blog. Not one of these people saw what Anon101 said about how stupid I am. They would all die of boredom if I even tried to tell them about the big Facebook argument I’m embroiled in.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” It’s a harsh but true point that everyone with a blog or Facebook account should memorize.
8. Pray about it…but not too much
Of course we should always speak freely to God about whatever is on our minds, but be careful not to use prayer as another way to fixate on some online situation that you’re attached to. It’s easy to sit there and pray about how to respond to so-and-so, what your next update should be, how to handle that one offensive remark, etc., leaving no time to be still and listen to what God may be trying to tell you. As my spiritual director would point out, God may have a message for you entirely unrelated to this situation, but if you’re not taking time to clear your head and simply listen, you won’t hear it.
I hope some of these tips, hard-won from much personal experience, are helpful to you. What are some of your tips for not letting the internet become a distraction in your life?