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Attention

Posted by Daniel Fang on

 

I’ve been off of Facebook for almost two years. And it’s been fantastic.

I consider myself an infrequent user of social media. When I share this fact with friends and colleagues, I get mixed responses. Some applaud my courage to pursue a low-information diet (which seems to reflect poorly on what we consider courageous). Some express confusion. Still others judge me silently and walk away. At least they can’t unfriend me.

Image credit: scyther5 / 123RF

Two years ago, I realized something: I needed to get off of Facebook. It’s not because I dislike seeing pictures and updates from friends. (I really do.) It’s not because I miss re-watching old videos and reviewing old pictures. (I really do.)

It’s because Facebook and many other social media platforms require a high cost to participate: my attention. And I’ve found that repeatedly expending my attention toward social media can be devastating to my pursuit of deep relationships, meaningful work, and spiritual formation.  

This realization is partly inspired by a favorite biblical story of mine: the story of the prophet Elijah fleeing for his life while being chased by the armies of Queen Jezebel and King Ahab of Israel. In response to this threat, Elijah runs into the wilderness and seeks God for forty days and forty nights.

While alone in the wilderness, Elijah encounters a great wind, a great earthquake, and, finally, a great fire. The prophet looks for God in all these natural wonders but fails to find him.

Finally, as he waits with full attention in the stillness, Elijah witnesses God show up as a quiet whisper.

There are cognitive psychologists and economists who spend whole careers studying the topic of attention. According to the theory of attention economy, attention is a scarce resource and each individual only has so much of it.

As information content becomes more readily available in our digital age, our ability to consume and engage with this information becomes limited by our attention.

Social media companies like Facebook generate large amounts of revenue by captivating our attention. The more attention, the more revenue. Facebook has poured billions of dollarsinto capturing and capitalizing on our attention for their own profit and gain. Given that we are the product, it is not actually a free experience.

On a personal level, I resonate with the concept that my attention is a highly valued and highly scarce resource. I can’t make more of it, but I’m using it all the time.

It’s like a bank account that fills up in the morning and then is expended constantly throughout the day. Sharing my day with my lovely wife? It will cost me some attention dollars. Dinner and conversation with a good friend? More attention dollars. What about writing a research paper? That would require a big withdrawal from my attention account.

In my own pursuit of deep relationships, meaningful work, and spiritual formation, I found social media to be a particularly harmful outlet for spending my attention currency. Its ubiquitousness and constant push notifications keep me unfocused and distracted. Its vast, easy access to an array of friend updates lulls me into a false sense of intimacy, trading the development of truly deep and meaningful relationships for a shallower exchange of likes, emojis, and Twitter-length interactions.

And every moment spent on social media triggers a hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for the brain’s reward center and a key chemical involved with addiction. Addiction is written right into the codeof Facebook.

Ultimately, social media spends down my attention bank account, leaving me feeling exhausted and generally unfulfilled. It keeps my brain from entering a much-needed state of mental downtime. It provides me shallow rewards, work without fruit, and lost time without meaningful returns.

I know my experience is not shared by all, and there are real values to exploring the space of greater social connectedness. But for me the unregulated and undisciplined use of social media is particularly unhelpful.

Since disconnecting from Facebook two years ago, I’ve noticed a slow transformation in my life: I’ve cultivated deeper and more select friendships. I use my time more efficiently, allowing me to pursue more meaningful work with greater productivity and focus. My mental space is less cluttered, and it’s easier to seek peace and stillness.

This experience has been overwhelmingly positive for my relationship with God. Similar to the story of Elijah, I’ve found it necessary to look past the loud noises and distractions to enter a place where God has been present all along.

In our fast-paced, information-filled world, everything competes for my attention. There are great winds, earthquakes, and fires everywhere, especially in a place like Silicon Valley. But I believe the secret to pursuing meaningful spiritual formation in this Valley lies in a much quieter place—a place where we can find peace, sit still, and focus our attention to hear the whispering of God.

 

 

 

Daniel Fang is married to the wisest and most beautiful woman in the world, Marie. He came to faith in college and has been attending The River Church since 2012. There he volunteers in small groups ministry and the worship team. In his spare time, Daniel eats, runs, reads, and rants about systemic imperfections. He enjoys spending time with his golden retriever, Sobe, who is perfect.

Comments

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Susan Sep 18, 2018 4:10pm

Nice piece, Daniel! I resonate with a lot of what you said. Kudos to you for making a counter-cultural choice for the sake of your life with God and others. Well-written, too!

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