I spent the week with a bunch of internet friends at EmberConf—and I have been mulling (yet more) on the dynamics of social media, embodiment, attention, and presence. This is the content of my email newsletter for the week—not my normal habit, but this piece lives in both worlds, I think.
I spend a non-trivial part of my day every work day in “closed” social media spaces: a handful of community Slack organizations and my work Slack, a couple of open source software Discord communities, and a Twist subscription where Stephen and I coordinate our Winning Slowly. I still use Twitter—but decreasingly so: I pop on once or twice a day, skim through my feed, and close it out. I almost never use Facebook at all: it simply stopped being useful at all in the last few years. I check LinkedIn… mostly because my day job is to support that app. I never use any other social media anymore—Instagram I dropped years ago; others are dead (App.net) or never caught on for me past an initial experiment (Ello).
Going to EmberConf highlighted for me both the deep value of those platforms and their stark limitations. The deep value, because I spent a lot of time this week with people I have come to consider colleagues and indeed friends. Their stark limitations, because for all that we spend a great deal of time conversing with each other online—planning, arguing, helping each other, joking—there is something profoundly different, profoundly better, about standing or sitting by from someone and hearing their words (not merely reading them). We are embodied beings and disembodied interactions simply are not the same.
I am increasingly a proponent, and a loud one, for remote work. I have worked remotely myself for over six years now: over half my career to date. I have said often in the past few years that remote work is now a non-negotiable for me: it is too important in my family life for me to do otherwise. Remote work is profoundly empowering in many ways. It enables me to collaborate with peers around the country and around the world. It gives me more time, by way of eliminating a commute. It affords me the ability to simply turn off the distractions and work deeply.
Perhaps most valuable of all to me, it allows me to be present with my family—to have been there as my daughters learned to walk and to speak; to be able, when my dear wife needed a break from the potty-training, to give her that break; to give both my wife and my daughters my attention when they need it (and not only in hours deemed convenient by an employer)—in short to give those I love most what they deserve from me.
I will not willingly give up those benefits.
But notice: it is precisely a matter of my presence that is at issue here. The difference is not in whether my embodied nature matters, but where it matters most. I am grateful for my various remote employers these past few years, and I aim (and have aimed) always to honor my employers by doing my best work for them. But I owe no employer the hours or the attention that belong first of all to my family.
We speak sometimes of “vocation”—but mean by it almost always “our mode of employment.” The word means more than that. My callings are manifold and pluriform, and so are yours. I am first of all a follower of Jesus: the calling that shapes all the others. I am then one of God’s people, then a husband, then a father, then a son and brother, then a friend, then an employee. (If that ordering seems odd, well, it always has: even to Jesus’ first followers.) My vocations are broader and deeper than merely “a man who writes software for LinkedIn” (glad though I am of that one)—and the others, rightly understood, demand much more of me than does my career.
I am glad, therefore, of Slack and Discord, and to some degree even of Twitter (and, at times in the past, Facebook also). I have made friends there and done good work there. I am likewise grateful for the tools that make remote work possible. But I must not mistake those social media and tools for the truer goods for which they cannot substitute: sharing good food and drink with each other, and living out all our callings in the places where we find ourselves.