Having recently returned from a Borneo trip, I was busy sorting through my footage. My neck still ached from scanning the trees with my head stretched backwards, but the sights were worth it. The light bursting through the canopy as a wild male orangutan spat out some unwanted food, his impressive flanges framing his kind eyes. The rare spectacle of bushy crested hornbills nesting in an impossibly small tree hole. The jiggling nose of a proud proboscis monkey as he protected his pot-bellied harem, their stomachs swollen from either pregnancy or leaf consumption. A regal rhinoceros hornbill preening its wings with its ghastly head as it sat on the branch of a dead white tree.
After six months of being intentionally locked out of my accounts on Instagram and Facebook, I asked Tom if I could rejoin social media yesterday. I wanted to share the unique things we saw in the Bornean jungle, including the endangered animals that can only be found on that island. Plus, we have so much material! I could update my Instagram for months with close-ups of sleeping azure kingfishers, the steam of the jungle at dawn, the ominous ripple on the chocolate river that concealed man-eating saltwater crocodiles.
However, I didn’t push him for the password. Now, I’ve changed my mind.
I remembered why I gave it up in the first place. The freedom of being separated from my screen. My annoyance at needing that plink of gratification when a ‘like’ rolls in. I thought of the benefits of living a more ‘offline’ existence. The reward of storytelling to an audience that doesn’t already know the punchline. The personalised conversations instead of broadcasting my life clumsily on a platform for all to see. The extra hours I can spend finishing my book, or even attempting to write myself.
Besides, posting a photo with a caption on social media is easy. Why not write about my experiences on here instead? The backstory, where a tribesman shares how to kill a headhunter with five deadly ingredients, some dialogue to show the local affinity for the word ‘got,’ and the pungent smell of citronella as we try to ward off malaria and dengue-carrying insects. These are the details that cannot be captured with images.
Something that our naturalist guide mentioned during a trek has stayed with me. He was one of the last of his tribe who grew up living in the traditional way before life began to change over fifty years ago. He learnt how to build a canoe from hardwood harvested from the rainforest, he built a wooden longhouse to secure a wife and hunted bearded pigs, reticulated pythons and macaques using darts to provide food for the tribe.
He shared some of his survival techniques with us, which included never using the name of your companions to avoid a rival tribe luring you to your demise by false familiarity. Instead, he demonstrated the array of calls he could make using his hands and wild ginger leaves to whistle and hoot like wild gibbons or a scared juvenile deer. He taught us how to build a fire and take shelter in the protective buttresses of the Seraiah tree, and how to fend off predators such as sunbears or leopards with a crude handmade poker. He warned us never to sleep horizontally as you’ll snore like a pig and attract unwanted attention.
He pointed out which liana vines were safe to drink from and how to create a ‘breadcrumb trail’ by snapping saplings as you walk. He showed us how to call for help if you are alone, by taking a small stone and hitting it against the hard Seraiah trunk. The boom can be heard up to 3km away. When he imparted this knowledge to his grandson, the boy shrugged and said that he did not need to learn all of that. He would just use his mobile phone to call for help. When the grandfather continued and said that the battery could die, the phone could get wet or the signal could be lost, the boy laughed and went back to playing his computer games.
Perhaps it is unfair to lament a lost way of life and criticise how quickly the younger generations have adapted to the new technological landscape, but I can’t help feeling like we are losing more than we are gaining by inhabiting a virtual world.
To strengthen my resolve and avoid returning to the productivity black hole of social media, I watched a TEDx Talk from an American chap that has never used social media (although I understand the irony of having to watch it on YouTube). In his speech, provocatively named ‘Quit Social Media,’ Dr. Cal Newport states three good reasons to come off it, whilst addressing the common concerns of those hooked and afraid to delete the apps themselves. The most intriguing point he made was that overuse can permanently inhibit your concentration and ability to perform tasks, akin to playing a slot machine for hours on end each day and deadening your senses.
Although there is an argument that a little distraction can help us solve complicated problems quicker than if we solidly focus on that one issue, I have found that without the irresistible pull of Facebook and Instagram, I am generating more ideas in my white-noise time. That is, as I’m falling asleep, taking a shower or doing a banal task such as hanging out laundry, some novel ideas are popping into my brain whereas before I might have wondered how a post was being received. The breathing space from my phone is helping to boost my creativity.
Then there’s my productivity. I’ve used my time more conscientiously, having committed to practicing Spanish whenever I can. After four months of intense practice, I could hold a conversation with friends and understand a fair amount. I never thought it would be possible given my limited spare time.
The final benefit for me is a well-documented side effect from withdrawing from social apps. I feel an overwhelming sense of peace. I’m no longer compelled to overshare the details of my life and analyse the response of others, compare myself to airbrushed ideals or shift through a bombardment of noise before stumbling across something meaningful. Now, everything is distilled, clearer and quieter. The important news will still find its way to me, and I do not have to worry about missing anything.
This experiment has made me realise how much more content I am without social media. Rather than returning to my old ways, I am going to remove the temptation and delete my accounts permanently. I’d rather be outside exploring.