I deleted Instagram from my phone earlier this summer. A few months before that I did the same with the Facebook app. Our family went on a pretty big adventure for a few weeks, and more than once my instinct was to share a photo of it on social media, but when I realized the app wasn’t on my phone I felt a flash of frustration followed by a sigh of relief—then I moved on, happy to be fully present where I was, when I was, how I was with those I love most.
Part of the reason I dropped the apps from my phone was that the previous year had been so packed with stuff I needed to tell people about: the Wingfeather film and Kickstarter campaign, the Rich Mullins show at the Ryman, the Christmas tour, the Resurrection Letters release and tour. It would have been irresponsible of me to refuse to share that stuff online because other people (the label, management, concert promoters, etc.) were counting on it. If nobody knows about these things, nobody shows up; if nobody shows up, the people investing time and money in them don’t get paid; if that happens, the next time we try and put something into the world, I won’t have much help.
Like it or not, we look to social media for news about what matters to us. It would be silly not to take advantage of it. In fact, twenty five years ago when I started doing this music thing, I remember feeling frustrated that there wasn’t an easier way to let people know what I was up to—or on the other side of the coin, I was frustrated when I only found out after the fact that an artist I loved had been in town. Not long after that, when our community of songwriters banded together as the Square Peg Alliance, we talked about how sad it was that we couldn’t afford to make records without a label or a benefactor. “If only there was a platform that would allow our small but wonderful fanbase to help us pay for the project,” we lamented. Enter Kickstarter, which changed the game for many of us. These are good things. But here’s the problem: now social media asks more from me than I’m able to give. And if I play by its rules, it becomes a spiritual issue. Here’s what I mean.
Our family adventure this summer was a time of reconnection and retreat for Team Peterson. We were tired, worn down by school and work, by more-intense-than-usual creative demands (which always brings with it an increase in travel, which always brings an increase in weariness and stress). Don’t get me wrong—I love my job. Truly. I couldn’t be more grateful that the Lord has allowed me to serve him in this way. But in my old age I’ve gotten more and more private with personal stuff, and have felt more conviction about what’s appropriate to share on social media. Not only does it snap me out of the moment I’m in, as if it’s not enough to be in a beautiful place with my family unless I show everyone else where we are, it also leads to envy. Some people actually write “envious” or “jealous” in the comments. I know, because I’ve done it myself. We all know about the tendency on social media to make our lives look like they’re better than they really are. I’ve considered seeing what would happen if I posted a picture of myself with bloodshot eyes after a tearful argument, or a quick video clip of me grumbling about something that didn’t go right, or (the horror!) me with my shirt off to show why I’m trying to get more exercise. That’s not to mention the hellish tendency to put too much stake in how many likes or follows we got today. Comparison is the thief of joy, said Teddy Roosevelt, and social media is foundationally comparative. It’s comparison on steroids.
Social media asks more of me than I'm able to give. Andrew Peterson
Here’s the rub: I’m a touring songwriter and author. The way I pay my bills is, in a very real sense, tied to social media. It’s not a stretch to imagine that in the board meeting where a publisher or label is discussing whether or not to offer someone a deal, the amount of followers one has on Facebook or Instagram actually matters. More followers equals more influence and advertising, equals more sales, equals more profit, equals a contract and the possibility of putting something good and helpful into the world. As a member of the Rabbit Room board I can attest to the fact that an organization needs income in order to survive. If we didn’t have help from our Rabbit Room members (thank you for joining by clicking here, seriously), and if this amazing community didn’t actually support our artists and authors by purchasing products, the Rabbit Room would fizzle and go away. Social media is often how you guys find out about this stuff. Even if the Rabbit Room were just a website, we’d need to pay someone for hosting, design, and maintenance, not to mention content. Commerce isn’t an evil, however evil commerce can become if it isn’t done with righteousness.
Okay, so social media is, in this day and age, a necessary component of an artist’s career. Why not just post tour dates and album releases? Because, the social media gods tells us, people will stop listening to you if there’s no personal connection, no ongoing interaction, or if there’s only sporadic activity. People will start to think you’re greedy or self-serving if the only time you post on Instagram is when you want them to buy your books or albums. And, sadly, there’s some truth to that. We already get enough advertisements from everything else in the world—why would we bother to follow an artist just to get more ads? But isn’t there something icky about sharing intimate moments of my family’s summer vacation when even a fraction of my motive is to build up enough trust to tell you about my new record when the time comes? The answer is YES. It’s more than icky. And that’s when social media demands more than I’m willing to give. My heart is at stake. Yours is, too. You, friends, are not commodities. You are not merely means to an end. You are not mere vehicles for commerce. You are vast souls, invaluable and intricate. The murmur of the Holy Spirit in my heart has grown over the years into a clear voice: don’t thoughtlessly share pictures of yourself or your loved ones with people you don’t really know. Don’t play a game that inevitably leads to envy or dissatisfaction, for you or anyone else. Don’t manipulate children of God for your own purposes. Don’t compare your own gifts to what God has given to others. Be content with what you have. Pay attention to where you are. Be present.
What I’m describing, of course, is a worst-case scenario. I’m not at all implying that everyone on social media has the same conflict I do. Indeed, most of the time I’ve posted stuff online that wasn’t directly career-related was done so for fun, or because it really can be helpful, even joyful, to share our lives with each other. But we’re all flawed. Our hearts aren’t impervious to this temptation. Mine isn’t, at least.
The murmur of the Holy Spirit in my heart has grown over the years into a clear voice: don't thoughtlessly share pictures of yourself or your loved ones with people you don't really know. Don't play a game that inevitably leads to envy or dissatisfaction, for you or anyone else. Andrew Peterson
That leads me to where I am now, which feels like an impasse. How do I reconcile all this with the fact that I’ve come to know some of you well because of interactions on social media? How can I discount the massive encouragement I’ve received from some of you via Facebook or Instagram? How do I deny the fact that I have been blessed and shaped by albums and books and films and concerts and articles I wouldn’t have discovered any other way? How do I maintain a healthy relationship with people who actually do care about me and mine, who actually want to know what’s going on in my life, though I’ve never once had dinner or coffee with them? This culture is so weird, right? It’s weird in ways no one could have predicted when the first computer was constructed.
I don’t know the answers to these questions. It would be arrogant for me to assume you’ve noticed that I’ve been more absent than usual from social media, but if you have, it’s not your imagination. I’m fighting my way through this just like you are. But while I’ve been “gone,” I’ve actually been more “here” than I have in a long time. I’ve harvested this year’s honey, laughed with my family, watched some great movies, and read several great books. I’ve seen beautiful things and thanked God for them with a lessening impulse to grab my phone to tell everyone else about it. I’ve become more aware than ever of my broken need for approval and my habit to envy. Life was rich long before social media showed up, and it’s been nice to remember that. And yet, I really do want to share things with my friends and acquaintances and even those I don’t yet know. How can you see a beautiful tree and not want to say, “Isn’t that something?”
I guess I’m saying I don’t yet know how to navigate these waters. For now, at least, here are a couple of principles I’m trying to abide by:
1. Don’t post about myself unless I have to. Use social media to draw attention to other people’s work more than my own. If we all agreed to this, we could avoid the icky stuff and just as many people would know what we’re making.
2. Keep it off my phone. I don’t miss the Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook apps. Nowadays I post stuff from my computer. That way it’s a bit more trouble to share things, and I’m not tempted to do it in the moment. We all know there are better ways to spend our time at traffic lights and airport terminals than thumbing our way through a zillion pictures and memes.
3. Don’t post anything that might cause my brothers and sisters to stumble. If I’m posting something that is meant, even a little bit, to make my life look awesome, then I shouldn’t. Yes, our lives are full of beauty and goodness and delightful moments. No, I’m not meant to construct a false world for others to see or, worse, to boast. This one is really tricky, because it’s actually wonderful to be able to share good news and gratitude. Pray for discernment. Listen to the Spirit.
4. Be present. After our vacation I found some fun pictures and posted them, then I moved on. No offense, but when I was with my family, I didn’t want to be with the rest of Facebook. It reminds me of something Wendell Berry said about poetry: “You can’t think about the fact that you’re writing a poem. As soon as that thought shows up, you’ve stopped writing a poem. You’re doing something else.” In that spirit, I’d say this: “When you’re experiencing something beautiful, you can’t stop and take a picture of it to share with everybody else. As soon as that happens, you’re not experiencing something beautiful. You’re doing something else.”
I’d love to hear how you’re wrestling with these things. I don’t pretend to have the answers, and I’m sure I’ll post stuff online that’ll make you roll your eyes and say, “Oh, Mr. I-Hate-Instagram doesn’t have a hard time now, does he?” All I know is, it’s been nice not fussing with it for the last few months. On the other hand, maybe it’s just part of the culture now and the answer is to find a way to redeem it. In the meantime I want to keep wrestling the giant. I’ll let you know how it goes. Probably on Facebook.