Tell the truth: have you ever looked up someone from your past on social media to see what they look like, what they’re doing now, how they have…. matured? It’s almost a ridiculous question these days as, if you haven’t, you are either over a certain age or you are a very centred, grounded, (incurious?) individual. Of course, I haven’t ;)! But, here’s the thing: how much are we affected by the twerpy tweets, Facebook posts, airbrushed instagrams, ladder of linkedin, and wisecracking snapchatting of others? How much are we held back by hankering after those who would be better forming part of our digital debris as opposed to our online obsession? How much are we prevented from living our own lives in the present moment, all because we are busy online curtain-twitching to see what others are up to? You might have curtailed how long your children spend online, but how disciplined are you at policing yourself? Anytime I catch a bus, the first thing I notice is that the majority of passengers’ heads are buried in their smart phones. We have stopped looking out into the world, noticing the here and now of our everyday surroundings, all because we are scurrying to look in, finding out about the minutiae of others’ lives. A blinkered Shire horse ploughing a field might see more than today’s commuters!
Gone are the days when all that was available to us were three simple options to keep in touch: writing a letter and posting it to the last known address; knocking on the door of their home; or making a phone call to a landline shared by all members of a household. Remember the old Dr. Hook song? “Sylvia’ mother says, ‘Sylvia’s tryin’ / To start a new life on her own / Sylvia’s mother says, ‘Sylvia’s happy / So why don’t you leave her alone / And the operator says, ‘40 cents more, for the next three minutes’ / ‘Please Mrs. Avery, I just gotta talk to her / I’ll only keep her a while / Please Mrs. Avery, I just wanna tell her goodbye.’” Nowadays there must be half a dozen, or more, ways to tell her goodbye on social media – neatly cutting out the gate-keeper mother! It’s the same message with the Cliff Richard song: “Carrie doesn’t live here anymore / Carrie used to room on the second floor / Sorry that she left no forwarding address / That was known to me / Carrie doesn’t live here anymore / You could always ask at the corner store.” Both songs are very obviously dated: Sylvia and Carrie – nowadays I bet you could find both of them with a few clicks of the mouse.
Being connected online is wonderful, it helps with isolation and loneliness, and if you are less able to get out of the house to interact with people, it is a fantastic way of staying in touch. But what if there is more of you out there and available on the internet than you want? How do you roll back, detach, retreat? It’s not easy. It seems that everyone is available nowadays – even if they do not want to be. There have been a few big stories lately in the media about past posts and online opinions from people in public life, which years later has been their undoing. Ill thought out meanderings, unretractable records, images forever imprinted on the World Wide Web, words fluttering in cyberspace, as uncatchable as seeds blown free from a dandelion head.
I love my devices: smart phone and laptop for me, my life is enhanced by them. As someone who lives alone, good use of them helps keep me connected and engaged. I do wonder, though, about the benefits of a digital detox from time to time. I don’t mean powering down altogether, but just cutting out some of the non-essential surfing that floods my head and scatters my thoughts. Letters, phone calls and knocking on doors, maybe it is time for a slow-communications revival.