Twenty-One Days Without the Internet

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.

It’s snowing.

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.

 

(photograph: sweater Chinti and Parker, trousers & Other Stories)

13 Comments

  1. December 20, 2017 / 4:57 pm

    You did well to take a step away – the lure of the ‘like’ is just too strong to resist at times. However, like you, it’s those moments when, instead of being fully engaged in my life, I wonder how a moment will play out on social media that I realise I’m losing the plot! All best wishes for 2018.

    • joannacannon
      December 20, 2017 / 5:05 pm

      I do that so often!

  2. December 20, 2017 / 5:00 pm

    And PS, I’ve just followed you on IG which in itself is another mixed blessing. What goes on behind the happy, shiny photos?!

  3. William Williams
    December 20, 2017 / 5:44 pm

    I stepped away from Twitter years ago, and haven’t much missed it. Oddly enough, however, reading your piece has suggested what I may be missing–a chance to be in touch with interesting, thoughtful people.

    • joannacannon
      December 21, 2017 / 9:12 am

      Twitter is a wonderful place, and I’ve met some amazing people on there!

  4. December 20, 2017 / 9:24 pm

    It’s an indication of our addiction that I found myself searching for the ‘like’ button on this spot-on
    post. x

    • joannacannon
      December 21, 2017 / 9:13 am

      Ha! Imagine if everything in life had a like button …

  5. Barry Walsh
    December 21, 2017 / 10:10 am

    Perceptive and humane take on our uneasy relationship with Twitter (and FaceBook). For me, it also has the great merit of being true!

  6. Peter Domican
    December 21, 2017 / 2:11 pm

    My answer to Lionel Shriver’s question would be ‘Because I’m human’. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting approval, to be heard, to be part of something, to share, to learn, to make a connection with others, to have made someone laugh and to be liked or loved. That’s what humans want in ‘real life’ (as some people like to call it), why not online with a different community?
    As I work remotely, my entire social interaction in a day can consist of the postman, the cashier at the Coop, the lady in the fish and chip shop, a phone call to my Dad and maybe I might see a neighbour. That’s not nearly enough. Twitter fills a gap for me. As a result though, my ‘real world’ social life when I get out has improved immeasurably too and because there are people I know going to things I’m interested in, it makes me more likely to get out!
    There’s clearly an issue of balance/ attention span/ overload and that’s primarily because the digital world seemed like a small village up to about 5 years ago and it is now a huge city; always something shiny and new to see; always something to do but, at the same time, less likely to be noticed and some pretty horrible people to avoid. I think we’ve just got to work out what suits us individually. If we’re constantly on, sitting there waiting for and counting ‘likes’, we’re probably out of whack but equally I don’t see any need to feel guilty about time online.

  7. Sarah Dobbs
    December 21, 2017 / 3:11 pm

    Its all about how we all want to’ connect’ in our world. Its what makes the ordinary extraordinary- whether its the internet, watching snow fall or sitting under tree or patiently waiting for your next book! Isolation or being ostracized is worse than lonliness and i think more feared. I think sharing is how we can reach out for connection and that’s why the internet is powerful. If i hadnt the internet then i wouldnt have the absolute joy of sharing and enjoying your thoughts . ( except this is not true because i met you at Gladstone library !).

  8. Sara Hunt
    December 22, 2017 / 1:34 pm

    Your thoughts and comments are spot on here. We live our lives through technology nowadays. There is no escape. We live and breathe Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. When you can access these sites in bed, in the car, at work, on the beach etc what is the point in having a real conversation? Why are we telling strangers our good or bad news before we tell our families and close friends? Why do we feel the need to read posts from people we don’t know and are never likely to meet? Most of these people don’t actually care if we like their posts all they are interested in is their popularity. That said these sites do enable us to interact with authors or musicians – to offer comments and praise for new books or or songs. I use sites like Twitter to find out about new books that are worth reading or new groups or singers that might be worth looking up. As an amateur writer these sites enable me to contact people I wouldn’t normally be able to connect with. There is still the issue of addiction though. You wake up and check the news headlines or the weather, you go to bed and do the same. Using phones or electronic devises before bed is harmful to sleep. You should have a free hour before bed. We are encouraged to go on these sites by the media and there is also a certain amount of peer pressure. Do we get more pleasure out of speaking to someone face to face than pressing a like button? I would like to think we do. There is still the issue of confrontation online. There is still an element of bullying online just as in real life. I don’t go online to be solicited by some male I’ve never heard of asking me for sex or a date but emails appear routinely in my Facebook messages from said men. I won’t post photos of myself on Facebook anymore as someone took a photo of me and said they were using it for something quite undesirable. I deleted my photos after that. I wish I could cut all ties to the internet for a week or even a day but life makes it impossible. Society has set the internet up to be indispensable. Kids won’t know any different soon. The art of a good conversation or a nice hand written letter will die. It is amazing that you can connect with people in another country with just the click of a button but do we need things to be that immediate? I just wonder what the future will bring….

  9. December 30, 2017 / 12:23 pm

    Well done you for having the commitment to stay away for that long. I’m a book blogger, so do spend more time than I’d like on social media. I use mostly Twitter with a tad of Tumblr and Pinterest. All my life I’ve been the sort of personality that seeks validation/approval. This post has clarified my underlying reasons for my actions, and made me more mindful of why I care about what complete strangers think… Thanks

  10. Amy
    January 5, 2018 / 11:11 pm

    Having read this a few weeks ago I have taken myself offline (in a soft way – I’ve deleted Facebook, Twitter and youtube off of my phone but still logon on my laptop every so often. I’ve also kept Instagram – because I love my daily dose of puppy pics from around the world)
    I have found it amazing and have realised how many hours and days I have lost to my shiny internet life that has no baring whatsoever on my real not so shiney life. I’ve found time to read (can’t wait for Elsie!), do yoga and just be.

    So thanks Jo – all these years and distance and you are still making me a better person.

    Much love. Xxx

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