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Have you seen the film The Social Network? In the final scene the character of Facebook co-creator Mark Zuckerberg, clearly still enamoured with a former girlfriend, rather than braving to ask her out, sends her an online friend request and the movie finishes with him repeatedly refreshing the webpage he is looking at, waiting for her acceptance.
This rather unfair character assassination of the founder of modern online social media is nevertheless a salutary lesson for all those with any kind of addictive interaction with the internet.
Last month on The Tablet blog, the outgoing headmaster of St Bede’s School in Manchester, Daniel Kearney, argued superbly that fasting from social media would be a great way for school pupils to live out Lent differently.
But, of course, social media are not just a source of distraction for children but an increasingly prevalent compulsion for adults – me included.
So it was in a spirit of expectancy that I decided to fast from social media this Lent, resolving not to spend any time on Facebook or Twitter, both of which in recent years had begun to take up a disproportionate amount of my time.
A priest I know wisely pointed out in a homily that what you gave up for Lent was not nearly as important as what you took on. And so it proved. Despite a few dalliances I managed to all but totally avoid the two sites for more than a full 40 days, and I found to my delight that the transformation was even more profound than I had imagined.
I experienced a new-found energy and willingness to phone friends for a chat and made a much greater effort to meet them socially in what in what is often termed “the real world”. Don’t misunderstand me – I have always been a very sociable person, but I rediscovered my joy of relating in person with a renewed fervour.
It should hardly be surprising. After all, what is it that really drives us to be constantly monitoring our online social network? It is, of course, the desire for communion, fellowship – koinonia – and ultimately intimacy with God. But as a friend recently advised, the one place you’re least likely to experience love is online.
The season of Lent has been precisely long enough to break my habit of feeling the need to interact online at all.
Far more important than this, I have found an increased desire to commune with God in prayer and devote time to deepening my faith. In other words it has led to metanoia, namely conversion.
Daniel Kearney wrote that a pupil complained to him “Lent is so boring, it’s always the same.” I can assure her and anyone else that a Lent entered into well, even with such a minor fast (for that is what it is), can and invariably does lead to unexpected and welcome transformations.
I now even look forward to Lent next year when I will give up television, probably in addition to social media.
Ed Rennie is a blogger in the diocese of Westminster