The social media sabbatical is an increasingly common occurrence for academics, even if many would see a name like this for what they’re doing as somewhat cringeworthy. Obviously the name doesn’t matter though. What’s important is recognising when a break from social media would be beneficial to you and developing techniques for ensuring you see out the intended sabbatical period, even if returning to social media might prove tempting to you. I say this as someone who has intermittently announced an intention to leave Twitter for a period of time (more than once during the unexpectedly difficult process of preparing this second edition) only to return a few days later, as the experience of stress has subsided and the lure of social media has begun to reassert itself in my life.
There have nonetheless been periods of time when I’ve left social media for weeks, in the hope it will help me focus on a project that I’m struggling with; sometimes this has been the case (the end of my PhD) and on other occasions it hasn’t worked at all (the second edition you’re reading, for example). At times I’ve made the decision to stop blogging for a period of time, including points when it has just crept up on me rather than being something deliberate which takes shape in my mind; I just don’t feel like doing it and this solidifies into a sense that I’m on a break from blogging for a while. There’s nothing intrinsically interesting about when I post on social media and when I don’t. I’m sharing this here to illustrate the rhythms of engagement, even on the part of someone who most would perceive as an extremely intensive user of these platforms. At risk of stating the obvious, the fact you’re engaging online doesn’t mean you have to sustain this 365 days a year. In fact, you’re likely to enjoy it much more if you don’t.
However, it’s necessary to be realistic about the sense of obligation you feel, if any, as well as the expectations which other might have of you. It might seem self-indulgent to announce your intention to leave social media. But if you don’t make clear you won’t be present on a platform, people might continue to contact you through it, whether publicly or through private messages. In itself this might be of little significance but it can lure you in. It’s easy to find yourself wondering whether anyone has sent you anything important, leading you to log in before finding yourself sucked into precisely what you were trying to avoid. It can also be an opportunity to face up to your relationship with social media. If it’s purely an obligation, undertaken for narrowly professional reasons apart from periods of time in which you need a holiday, it shouldn’t be an issue.
Yet many people’s experiences of wanting to take a break from social media highlight the ambivalence they feel about it, as well as the difficulty they face in acting on this ambivalence. It’s not so much that they want to keep their distance from social media as that it often gets in the way, drawing them in despite their best intentions and displacing their intended object of focus. It can be enjoyable, yet feel like work. It can be freely engaged in, yet nonetheless be an obligation on some level. It can also sometimes be depressing, upsetting and dispiriting; it leaves us wired into a world which many of us intermittently feel the impulse to withdraw from. For all these reasons and more, we might feel we wish to take a break for a period of time and this raises the question of how such a break is conceived, acted on and announced. It can be useful to compare this to the well-established institution of a sabbatical, a period of time for study or travel in which the routine drudgery of working life is suspended to make room for professional development and self-exploration.
It doesn’t necessarily mean a complete distance from your work or your colleagues, only that you might be prioritising different things for this distinct and recognised period of time. The fact you’re on sabbatical does not ensure you’ll never be seen in the office. But it does mean that when you’re there, people are unlikely to take it the wrong way if you come in for a specific purpose and immediately leave afterwards. They won’t find it rude if you seem to be going out of your way to avoid getting drawn into conversation, much as they’ll accept it if your responses to emails become slow or non-existent. The point of a sabbatical is as much to do with the recognition of this time as it is with the time itself. It’s a period in which you are relieved from standard duties but that relief itself has a significance which others are obliged to respect (perhaps unsurprisingly given the contemporary term derives from the Greek for ‘of the Sabbath’). It provides a relief from the day-to-day and marks out a special time in a way that one’s peers recognise.
If social media has become a mainstream part of academic life then do we need comparable ways of providing relief from its day-to-day pressure? The notion of a social media sabbatical is only one suggestion to this end but my concern is that without ideas like this, people experiencing difficulties will simply find their stress levels mounting before they delete their accounts and head out into the night never to be seen (online) again. As I’m writing this, I can almost hear the sceptic screaming ‘why don’t you just delete your account if this bothers you so much?’ but this misses the point. In some cases this might be the right thing for people to do. For instance, the sociologist Roger Burrows described to me how social media was compounding the stress he felt about the state of the world and of the academy, leading him to a decision that he would prefer to stay away for a while. However, it’s important we find ways to ensure people have the control over the process so it’s not an all or nothing decision. If social media has become part of what academics do, it becomes something they will abstain from, to whatever degree, when they are inclined to take a break from what they do. The question is what form that break takes, how it is understood and how this understandings helps ensure we respect each other’s time.