Twenty-one days without the internet. Isn’t that completely ridiculous? I managed a good thirty years without the internet and no disaster befell me. It creeps up on you, though, dependence. It doesn’t tap you on the shoulder one day and say ‘let’s form an addiction together!’, it just crawls into your life unnoticed, until one day, you get up for the bathroom in the middle of the night, and casually check Twitter on the way back to bed, as if that’s perfectly normal behaviour. And you realise that perhaps something is very, very wrong.
I decided, in November, to remind myself of what life was like before social media, and so I unplugged my router, deactivated all my accounts, and spent more time sitting underneath trees. I admit, it was a spur of the moment decision, but the reasons behind it had been swimming around for a while, and they might not be the reasons that you first imagine.
There has been a lot in the press this week about whether social media is bad for you (isn’t everything, though, if it’s misused?) I don’t think social media turns us all into little Billy keyboards, with an inability to have real-life conversations. I don’t think it encourages social isolation, either (quite the opposite, to be fair.) I do think it’s a huge distraction, if you’re trying to work/write, but if you’re in the market for distraction you can genuinely find it in almost anything. I do, however, think it has its dangers. Less obvious dangers. I think social media changes the way we respond to the world, and how we ask the world to respond to us. I think it has the potential to alter language, and I genuinely believe it affects the way we think, even in subtle ways, and that’s something I’m not very comfortable with at all.
I once had a long conversation with Lionel Shriver, in which I attempted to persuade her on to Twitter (I think points for both bravery and optimism, right there.)
‘I don’t want to waste my time having arguments with stupid people,’ she said.
(valid observation – there is more than a fair bit of that)
‘No, no,’ I said. ‘Most people on there are absolutely lovely, and they say really nice things.’
She turned to me, arched a brow and spoke in that familiar, raw tone of absolute no-nonsense. ‘Then you must ask yourself, Jo, why is it that you need people to say nice things to you?’
I might not agree with everything Lionel Shriver says, but on this occasion, she was bang on the money.
I’m still trying to think of a good answer.
Is this why we send out little parcels of our lives on to the internet? Do we seek approval? Validation? Appreciation? Applause? I don’t feel as though I’m looking for approval, but why do I then have this inexplicable urge to post a picture of my Christmas tree (when thirty-odd Christmas trees past managed to exist quite nicely without anyone else admiring them?) On my second day of No Internet, I woke to find it had snowed. ‘I have to tell Twitter!’ was my immediate thought. No, no, Jo. You really don’t. Twitter can see the snow for itself. Twitter does not need your specialised subject to be the bleeding obvious. It’s strangely addictive, though, the instant response of social media. Someone posts a photograph or a thought, or a (perceived) witticism, and someone else, somewhere, reacts to it. The post is liked. Retweeted. Appreciated. Everyone likes to be liked, and so the original poster does it again. And again. Like a rat in a box, they press a button and receive a reward. Skinner would have had a field day with Twitter.
However, whilst instant reactions (and rewards) are very lovely, they are also very dangerous, because everything takes on an air of immediacy. We don’t have time to go into any depth, because we’re too busy looking for the next shiny tweet. The next reward. We scroll. We refresh. We move on. When Twitter doubled its character limit, I ignored longer posts on my timeline, because I couldn’t be bothered to read them. Two hundred and eighty characters. Couldn’t be bothered. Too busy looking for the next shiny thing. And the problem with shiny things, is that it’s very often the unshiny things that are the most interesting. These thoughts are dismissed, though. In a sparkly, Twitter world, they are shelved and forgotten, because no one wants to read about your uncertainties, your questions, your angsty wonderings. There’s much more of a response if you post the latest misspelling of your name on a Starbucks’ cup, and anything deeper than a Caramel Macchiato is often dismissed. We don’t require messy, ambiguous thinking, we require snappy, sharp, easily retweetable one-liners and, if you engage with Twitter for long enough, you will soon lose those more complex thoughts.
You begin thinking in Twitter.
I must take a pretty photograph.
I must tell everyone.
And there’s my third thing (excuse the pun.) Instead of enjoying the snow. Instead of staring at its beauty and watching how the world changes around it, we are too busy taking a fabulous picture and choosing the best filter. We’re too involved with drumming up a great one-liner to go with our snazzy picture. We forget to live in the moment. Twitter does not encourage living in the moment. Its feed moves at such a pace, people’s thoughts and feelings drop from the screen before they have even had time to be read. You need to be quick. If there’s a world event or a celebrity faux pas, you need to be there with a memorable sound byte to stand any chance of being heard. There isn’t time to live in the moment. You need to act quickly, because living in the moment has become a thing of the past.
When I first discovered the internet, it involved a very screechy dial-up modem and the rest of the house being banned from making any land-line calls. Now we carry the internet around in our pocket. We need never be parted from our shiny, online life. I read an article recently that said in the past, we used the time it took to get from A to B to reflect on life. To shuffle our thoughts. Now, we use the time it takes to get from A to B to tell everyone we are getting from A to B. To tell the entire world that we are on a train. There is no time to reflect. No time for mindfulness. We are too busy sharing our thoughts on several social media platforms simultaneously, with one co-ordinated click of a button.
And lastly (very lastly – at least for now), social media encourages this. I can’t say it any better than Matt Haig, so I’m just going to leave it here.
You would think, reading back, that social media and I had become arch frenemies. We really haven’t. I have met some amazing people online, I hear opinions and voices I wouldn’t normally hear (and any opportunity for this is always to be applauded), and – as a side effect – the support for my writing has been truly amazing. And I will always (always) welcome people being nice to me. It was very hard to walk away from all that, even for just three weeks.
The first few days were the worst, and I found myself pressing buttons on my phone, even though I knew nothing would happen (good old airplane mode.) After the initial shock, though, it was amazing how quickly I became used to it. I started staring at things without searching for the best camera angle. I stopped thinking in snappy one-liners. I lived more in the moment. I even started to prise the lid off unshiny thoughts and returned to thinking more deeply than a Caramel Macchiato. And most importantly, words and thoughts lost their quantifiable value. When I did return, although I most definitely missed everyone, it was with a certain degree of wistfulness. But it’s important, I think, to step out of the room from time to time. It makes you more aware of the value of the internet, but it also makes you more aware of its faults. The pockets of quicksand you need to watch out for. How easily your mind, and your perspective, can be colonised by social media. I also think it makes you appreciate that there are times when you need to spend less time on the internet, and more time sitting underneath trees.
Less time being online, and more time … just being.