Welcome Back After The Break…

It’s been half-term here in Calderdale. Wonderful. Plenty of time to relax, catch up with people and things, get in a bit of exercise (especially on the bike), read, clean the house, tinker with an upcoming presentation, watch TV, proof read the new book, chat to the publishers about marketing it, do nothing… That kind of sums up my week so far. It’s now Thursday morning and I’m sitting at my computer in my front (and only) room waiting for Doris to knock at the west facing back door…

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Image: BBC

…yes, that Doris. She’s being very vocal and I think it might be a pragmatic decision to stay indoors. This is all fairly mundane stuff, no? Well, on the assumption that the house survives the storm it is.

There has, however, been one big difference this week; I haven’t told anyone about what I’m doing. Now don’t get too excited; I haven’t joined the intelligence services and been sworn to secrecy (although that could be just a double bluff…), I have simply decided to take a week off social media. For me this has meant no Twitter, no Facebook and no Instagram. I’m not even going to publish this article (which in turn gets automatically posted to Twitter and Facebook) until my seven days of self-inflicted prohibition are completed at midnight on Saturday.

I guess I’ve had a Facebook account for well over 10 years; my Twitter account for nearly 10 years and the Instagram account for about five years. In recent years, certainly since I started the long-distance cycling in 2010 and the books came out, I think it’s extremely unlikely that I have gone an entire week without posting something to at least one of the three accounts. Now don’t get me wrong; this is not about to become a mea culpa ‘hasn’t-my-life-become-a-vacuous-pile-of-shit-since-signing-onto-social-media’ rant. Far from it. I am one of those people who have been able to make extremely good use of (especially) Facebook and Twitter to publicise my travels, my books and yes, myself (let’s face it, ego is an at the centre of all social media, despite the word ‘social’ in the title). Would I really have been able to persuade 20,000 people to buy one of my books if I hadn’t make a conscious effort to link up with a good number of them via the Internet and then remind them relentlessly (albeit interspersed between all the other clutter of the minutiae of my life as a ‘travel writer and cyclist’) how wonderful the books are. It seems unlikely. Please forgive my immodesty; the books are good, perhaps very good, but there are plenty of equally good books out there that have never been read by anyone apart from the author. I have been lucky to have written mine at a time when it is now possible for most of the planet, whether you be the President of America, a hat shop in Dundee or indeed a self-published author in Halifax, to go out and tell the world that you are there and have something in which others might be interested.

So social media has been good for me. Indeed I would say that, overall, it is a force of good. We all know its faults; the bullying, the ignorance, the hate, the lies… But, in honesty, these are not my concerns and were certainly not instrumental in any way in me thinking ‘hang on… can we hit the pause button on this?‘. My worries about social media lie elsewhere. They are much more personal and this week has been a bit of an experiment. Have I really become a slave to social media? Has it taken over my life? Can I survive a week of going about my own business without sharing my thoughts with all those people online?

Some people will read that last question and sigh. Their eyes will roll backwards and their eyebrows bend to the sky (actually, having just tried to do those at the same time, it’s not easy, but you know what I mean). However, I refer you back to paragraph one and the following list:

Plenty of time to relax, catch up with people and things, get in a bit of exercise (especially on the bike), read, clean the house, tinker with an upcoming presentation, watch TV, proof read the new book, chat to the publishers about marketing it, do nothing…

In normal circumstances I would share my thoughts about doing all of these things on Twitter, perhaps even on Facebook and cap everything off with an arty picture of a café or the bike or my clean house uploaded to Instagram. Does the world really need pictures, even arty ones, of my front (and only) room? Probably not. Am I going to sell more books by someone ‘liking’ such an image? Alas not. It’s just inconsequential fluff. A picture of the bike or indeed a few tantalising lines of the new book (perhaps even in a café?), the image taken at an angle with some words blurred…

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…yes, that kind of thing. Perhaps. But my living room? No.

This week I have so far done much which is inconsequential and, in fairness, I have enjoyed not telling anyone about it. But it’s been a conscious ‘I-must-not-give-in-to-the-urge-of-telling-someone-about-this’ kind of enjoyment. I have sipped coffee in cafés, I have wandered around the supermarket, I have ridden on a bus and a train, I have made cups of orange juice for five year olds dressed as Cinderella, I have failed in an attempt to take something to the tip (closed), I have moved my sub-woofa from one side of the front (and only) room to the other, I have spoken to the police about an abandoned car down the road… Under normal circumstances at least some of these events would have provoked a tweet or two. But it was no struggle.

What has been more difficult is fighting the desire to post or tweet about the interesting stuff. The interesting-to-me stuff that is, which isn’t necessarily the interesting-to-you stuff. The fact that I have discovered the Bike Channel on Sky (channel 464) and watched as Ned Boulting escorted a group of cyclists to the summit of Mont Ventoux (see previous post) and then live cyclo-cross from the Netherlands. My trip to the Leeds Bicycle Film Club on Monday evening to see The Flying Scotsman (about Graeme Obree rather than the train). The moment last night when I started laughing out loud at Bill Bryson’s observations of what men do when they visit John Lewis. (They look at TVs but he puts it better than that.) And my rides out on the bike, against the wind to Buckstones, high in the Pennines and along the more sedate canals of the Calder Valley. I missed a few opportunities for some good tweets there.

Yet I survived unscathed, the moment passed, and I moved on to a new activity. But before we forget them, let’s revisit those inconsequential things, specifically the cafés, buses and trains. These are great people-watching locations and from my various seats I have done much looking and thinking. It will come of little surprise to discover that the most common of all the common activities that I was able to observe (as I didn’t have my face buried into the screen of my phone) was that of, yes, people with their heads buried into their phones.

After serving the orange juice to the little girls dressed as Cinderella, I joined them (in my capacity as a volunteer at the local arts centre) with their mums and some dads in a large room where they ran, screamed, bounced (on a castle), sang, danced, jumped… The majority of the parents had phones in their hands recording the ‘action’ and presumably many were posting the images online. I don’t have an issue at all with that; to me it was in the ‘inconsequential’ category but for them it was the ‘consequential’ stuff. There were, however, a small number who simply stared at their phones throughout most of the morning’s frolicking. They were elsewhere, perhaps watching the frolicking of others, living vicariously through a 5 inch screen. Ouch.

As I have said above, this is no manifesto for the abolition of social media, far from it. It is becoming, however, a week of interesting reflection. Today is Thursday and I have another three days to ‘survive’ without my social media accounts. I hope there will be a few interesting things to do before midnight on Saturday and there will, inevitably, be many golden opportunities missed for pithy, witty, clever, sarcastic, humorous, (sometimes) serious posts and tweets. How will I ever manage to watch Question Time tonight without venting my frustration via Twitter when yet another right-wing knobhead is given 30 seconds to offer his point of view? [SATURDAY UPDATE: I managed, just about, but I’m now fighting the urge to tweet my incredulity at the decision of the Trump gang in the White House to ban certain news organisations from their press briefings because of ‘fake news’. Can this really be the same bunch who last week told us about the ‘situation in Sweden’ when, err… there was no ‘situation in Sweden’. This is beyond satire…]

Perhaps the most telling thing about my social media holiday is that I have felt the need to write this post about doing such a thing (with three days still to go). The next step will be to abstain from social media for a week and not make comment about doing so in the first place. That’s my next challenge, so the next time I go quiet for a week, please don’t assume the worst…

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