My reliance on the internet has never been as obvious as it has been since I have been travelling (USA, Canada, Norway, Scotland, England). Not just reliance â an expectation that there will be free Wi-Fi virtually everywhere that I go.
And for the most part there has been. Cafes, bus stations, trains and particularly hostels are all incredibly accessible, consistent suppliers of it. I only stayed in one hostel that did not offer it as a free service. I'm sure my face was a picture when I read on the sign at the reception desk that the Wi-Fi charge was two pound for 24 hours.
There was no way I was going to pay that so I consequently spent an embarrassing amount of time at the nearby coach station. In my defence it was also warmer than our hostel was.
I justified this to myself because I needed to look things up. I needed to find directions; I needed to book travel; send e-mails; check the weather; look up things to do on trip advisor; tell Mum I am alive. It's not my fault that our society has evolved in such a way that makes it virtually impossible to be an unplugged tourist, right?
This is what I told myself in any case as I made the familiar swipe of my thumb to scroll down my Facebook newsfeed; flicking through friends photos with a flourish.
Now I am not afraid to admit to using Facebook a lot. It's the primary way I contact my family and I religiously post photos on there after going through the trauma of losing a memory stick full of photos before I'd had a chance to back them up. I enjoy feeling like I can keep up with what my scattered community is up to but I am not one to openly complain about being deprived of access to it.
I survived three months at camp with a rubbish internet connection and an impossible time difference. I think I Skyped home once during that whole time and that was fine. I survived a week out in the forest and desert without any reception and did not once have the thought that I wished I could go on Facebook. I did however get in trouble with my Mum who did not have the slightest clue where I was. Because most of the world is a Wi-Fi zone, a lack of communication did seem suspicious to her.
This expectation and acceptance that communication is so effortless and accessible that people do, in my opinion, have unspoken expectations of each other to be in constant contact. I myself am incredibly guilty of this. When I see that stupid little tick icon that tells me that somebody has read a message I've sent them but not yet replied I get a little upset.
A part of me asks the question: 'why don't they want to talk to me?' I mean they liked that annoying cat video, why couldn't they take the time to respond to my message? It takes a bit of self-consoling to consider options such as maybe they are on their phones and it's difficult to type; maybe they're in a lecture, maybe they did that thing that I always do where I read a message on -the-go, intending to reply to it later but because I've removed the icon I've forgotten that it was there.
It's a difficult to concept to get your head around, but sometimes there are really important things that require all of your focus. Not just your gaze-flicking- occasionally-in-its-direction-taking-in-maybe-every-other-word kind of attention. Sometimes it pays to remind yourself that just because it's become a normal part of everyday life, doesn't mean that Facebook is a replacement for everyday life. Sometimes it pays to check yourself and remember that it's not really normal or necessary to know what people are doing all the time.
Awareness doesn't always equal recovery
I do these checks and I know all of these things and yet I am still a victim of it all. I know that Facebook is an edited version of reality because I myself edit and filter the content that I put out there for people to see. I check the number of chins I have before I upload a photo of myself; I revise a status several times before I post it; I consider how many likes that video might get before I share it.
Yet I still feel pangs of envy at other peoples beautiful selfies and suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out) when I see a get together of friends. Then I think about the fact that if this technology did not exist, I wouldn't even have known the event had taken place. It's as though if it didn't happen on Facebook then it may as well not have happened.
The first time I really thought about this I went right ahead and culled my friend-list. I love that I can talk to people that I otherwise may have lost contact with, as long as you actually do want to contact them. Unfortunately this cannot be said of everyone I have met since I was fifteen. How many friends do you have that you have never once directly contacted? (Likes don't count.) I would hazard a guess that it is a frighteningly small proportion of the total number.
I'm sure that the scientific number for the amount of connections an average person can maintain is one hundred. I know people with friend-lists more than ten times that size; and why? What's the point? If anyone is reading this that has recently noticed that I have defriended them on Facebook; it's not because I don't like you (probably), it's just that I don't need to know what you're doing all the time.
This morning I received an e-mail from a friend I have barely talked to in the last five months. It was so nice to read something more than a paragraph long without the distraction of auto-playing videos or 'suggested sites'. I knew that he had purposely sat down and composed this message rather than just absent-mindedly clicking on that little red icon. He won't be able to see when I read it or how long I spent on my reply but he will eventually get one in his in-box. My joy at receiving this e-mail reminded me that you don't have to be in constant contact with someone for them to mean a lot to you.
Humans need community. We are social creatures and frankly we go a bit crazy when left to our own devices for too long. However we need real community, not a virtual one. Yes it's useful, yes it's an amazing tool and no, I can't quite bring myself to do without it completely. The reason I was okay during those periods of limited or no internet access was because I was busy and with people I cared about. Not being in direct contact with people back home, didn't mean that I didn't think about them or loved them any less.
In fact, some of my best relationships are with people I don't see very often at all. Pen-pals, people who have moved away and people I've moved away from. Heck I'm even working on one with somebody who I've never met and never will in this life.
Helen McIntosh is a 21 year old trying to create more than she consumes. Writing is a way of banishing any circulating thoughts to make way for the new.
Helen McIntosh previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/helen-mcintosh.html