The Big Room

A Parable for Social Media Addicts

You’re in a big room.

Everyone you love and care about are gathered in this room: family, church family, close friends, coworkers and old friends from school. Even the people you find just a slight bit interesting are here: local politicians you support, celebrities you like, leaders in your industry, representatives from brands you enjoy.

It’s a raucous gathering. When you came in, nearly everyone there was already talking to someone else. Some are waving their hands as they recount larger-than-life stories to the groups which had gathered around them. Others are locked in heated debate about some topic or another. Others still just wander, taking in small bits of conversation as they stroll around the room.

So many interesting people! Where to begin? The possibilities feel limitless.

You pass a group debating a topic in which you feel invested, so you stop and listen. Soon, you’re participating in the conversation and making some good points, though several people remind you that they are points already mentioned earlier in the conversation. Still worth repeating, you think. The conversation is not only interesting, it’s stimulating; you feel like it’s keeping you sharp, witty.

While someone else in the group is countering one of your arguments, you overhear a close friend in the group beside you recounting a story from childhood. You’d never heard this story, and you wonder if it has something to do with why he is the way he is now. He’s nearly to the point in the story where his life was dramatically changed when you notice your sister is showing off pictures of her new baby to some mutual friends. She lives several hours away and you don’t get together much, so you haven’t had time yet to see the baby.

You excuse yourself from the debate (though you were just asked a question), to see pictures of the new baby, but someone steps in your way. You haven’t met them before, but they love your work. They’d love some insight into your field. How did you get so good at what you do? How did strike a balance between work and family? Oh, the irony. You answer as briefly and politely as possible while your sister continues flipping through the photos of the new baby. Finally, you’re free of the devoted fan, and you get to pay some attention to your new niece’s big fat cheeks.

You’re about to ask if either mom or baby is sleeping through the night when someone taps you on the shoulder. It’s a representative from a brand that you support, pitching a new product to you. You realize he’s just trying to make a sale, so you quickly divert your attention back to the pictures and… were you going to ask a question? There’s another tap on your shoulder, so you turn to tell the brand-man to buzz off, only to realize it’s now a friend from church. You’re about to say hello when he starts to pitch the product the brand-man was pitching just a moment again. While your back is turned, your sister heads off to tend to the baby.

This is social media.

It’s wonderful. So many conversations to be had, so many debates to win, so many things to learn, so many lives to touch. It is possible, with a lot of focus and discipline, to have a meaningful conversation in that room. There are even little side-rooms where you can take a conversation that’s particularly important, but the din of big room makes it hard to focus. Even with ironclad focus, it’s hard to know if the people your conversing with are paying the same kind of attention. We are finite creatures, limited by time and attention. We only have so much capacity to process the world around us and the people in it.

Simply put, it’s hard to pay attention in the big room.

And paying attention is important for meaningful conversations. In fact, paying attention is important for everything in life except maybe folding laundry and The Weather Channel. I’m committed to doing some big things in life that require big attention: being a loving and aware father and husband, a thoughtful and attentive pastor, a creative and focused employee. It’s hard to give those things the proper attention they deserve when you’ve depleted your store of attention on lesser things that feel much more important than they really are.

So… use social media, but be sure to step away from the big room now and again. It’s not quite as noisy out here. I find a social media purge every now and again good for the mind.

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
—R. Frost