One morning last December, I tweeted from a lion kill. While the sounds of cracking bone and the reek of dead giraffe rose up through the swampy Lowveld air, I was hunched over my iPhone, tweeting about what I was watching. In my defense, I was so excited that I had to share the experience — and the most obvious place to do that was on Twitter. Some of my followers were appalled (to tweet from the bush was to violate a sacred law) but many others were fascinated. At the time, reporting my experience to a collection of names on a timeline felt as if it added to the experience rather than detracting from it.
It’s a dilemma that many of us face whenever we escape from our daily routines to head off to the beach, the mountains, or the bush. Should taking a holiday mean getting away from it all — including Twitter and Facebook? Or is being connected to our social media networks just a natural extension of who we are, wherever we are?
Judging by what I’ve been seeing on my timeline, people on their Christmas holidays are continuing to tweet and update as usual. This week so far, somebody had some good sightings near the Kruger Park, another just crossed the Orange River on the way to Plett; several tweeted photos of a blockade at the Sodwana Bay National Park. I asked how people felt about accessing social media while on holiday, and got a range of responses. “My friends are always my friends, no matter what I am doing”, declared one woman. Another expressed the opposite view: “True rest only settles when you turn off the noise.”
Getting away from it all, I think, depends to a large extent on what you’re getting away from. Some of us could no more imagine being disconnected from our friends on BBM or MXit than having a limb removed without anaesthetic. For others, the challenge is to wean ourselves off the constant stream of work emails, those siren songs that call us back to the office. Dalton Conley, dean of social sciences at New York University, has coined the term “weisure” to describe the blurring of work and leisure. When there is no clear line between work and personal time, everything becomes work, and the time you put aside to wind down simply becomes an extension of the life you were trying to get away from in the first place. This has important ramifications for your own health and your work performance; there’s a growing body of research showing that getting away from it all is good for your mental health.
Social media is not work, or shouldn’t be. On holiday, it’s about connecting with people you actually like, not the people you acknowledge with tight smiles in the passageway between the cubicles. But spending time on social media when we’re taking a break brings with it the same problems that face us when we’re muddling through our daily lives: the constant need to perform for the benefit of the imagined audience, monitoring what everyone else is doing, the relentless and inevitable comparisons. Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT talks about how exhausting it can be to always be online. Adolescents develop a kind of performance anxiety because there is no escape: “They almost don’t have permission in their life to shut it down, to get off those Facebook accounts, to get off those internet accounts.”
In my experience, this is true of adults too. And this is the problem I know lies at the heart of my love of tweeting from lion kills, which (let’s be honest) is also a form of boasting. Being present on social media means being less present in the immediate reality in which you find yourself. You experience a duality of the self; you’re Schroedinger’s holidaymaker, here-but-not-here, marveling at a glorious sunset over the Atlantic and telling everyone about it at the same time. It is not possible to tweet about something and fully experience it.
The truth is that it is only by disconnecting from the constant need for new emails, new tweets and new status updates that we learn to be fully present. My co-driver on a trip back from Cape Town earlier this year threatened to throw my phone out the window if I tweeted or checked email while I was in the car with him. I carped about it at first, but after a while I settled into the routine — and something remarkable happened. On that bumpy, potholed road past Phillipolis, in a car headed for the wide horizon, I felt something approaching complete contentment.
“Nature decides for us,” reflected another of my friends, who lives in Sweden and summers at a remote cottage. If you can’t get a signal, then connecting isn’t an option, and there is something wonderfully liberating about that. Now, though, it is possible to chat online while sipping red wine around the hardekool embers in the boma. The rest of the world reaches ever deeper into the wilderness, and there’s something just a little sad about that.
I keep saying this and not doing it (because I am very bad at taking my own advice). But put the phone away. Resist the urge to tweet. And, for once, just be.