Last week I abandoned my Instagram and Facebook accounts. They remain intact, preserving my pedestrian activities from 2007 to April 2019, and then the information runs out. Activity, opinions, views, likes – all this busywork is still happening online, but where I am, in the dark, it's quiet.
It's ridiculous that leaving social media should feel like such an upheaval; after all, a great many people get by fine without it. When I joined the sites, they had seemed benign and trivial. Over the years, and without so much as a ripple in the flow of my news feed, things changed. Somewhere along the way, social media became malevolent, gigantic and opaque. Leaving it requires abstinence from systems deliberately designed to be addictive. Leaving means disappearing.
I would like to claim high-minded ideals were behind my decision, but really, I was wrapped up in my own concerns about my attention span. I used to be able to memorise information, but now everything I read was dashed away immediately, to make room for more, more, more: stories, photos, headlines, rants. I had become increasingly uneasy about the way social media dictates our patterns of social interaction, and how difficult it was to connect with people, or organise anything, without it. I have lived so much of my life online that the idea of opting out of social media was spatial: it meant hiding in a cave, while life roared on outside.
The idea of a cave had been on my mind for some time. Before I actually left my accounts behind, when I was just fussing over the notion, I had stumbled across a cave and an altar.
My first faltering attempt to untangle from social media was to go out into the world immediately in front of me. In March I had been walking aimlessly (and nosily) around Musselburgh and Inveresk. Inveresk is untiringly beautiful, the houses scrupulously maintained, with lime render the colour of egg yolk and lilac. The red roof tiles of East Lothian can be found down pretty little lanes with names like 'Grannus Mews'.
There were too many funny little details to ignore, and so, to find out more, I had turned to the Old Statistical Accounts of Scotland, 1791 – 1845. This was an early attempt at a census and is compiled from lively parish records, collected by the Scottish politician Sir John Sinclair, from his correspondence with Church of Scotland ministers (it can be found online, and I recommend looking up your area). I had understood Inveresk to be the posh bit of Musselburgh, although I believe that it likes to think of itself as quite separate.
I read in the parish records that Inveresk is so beautiful and clement as to be called the 'Montpellier of Scotland' (or so the minister would like us to believe). In 1845, it was relatively free of disease, although typhus and scarlet fever outbreaks are in near memory. There is mention of the regrettably 'filthy habits' of the 'lower orders', but one (presumably wealthier) member of the community has made it to 98 years of age.
There is an evocative description of villagers practically falling over Roman relics: 'excavations… and casual exposure of ruins, from age to age, prove the existence of Inveresk, not only as a Roman military station, but as a Colonia Romana... The whole northern slope of the hill appears to have been covered with buildings'.
Then this: a cave and an altar. The most mysterious entry in the records: 'In 1547, a cave and an altar were discovered', we are told, on the apex of a hill. The inscription on the altar began, 'Apollini Granno'. Granno (of Grannus Mews) hails from Celtic origins, a god of healing and of the sun, and was merged with the complex Apollo. As well as being the god of sun and light, poetry and prophecy, Julius Caesar wrote of Apollo that he 'averts disease'. (To be exact, he sent plagues, and then he kindly alleviated them.)
I thought of a cave for reflection, away from public view, for the worship of the sun and good health. It's an easy leap to imagine Romans, overcast with doubt about whether this northern territory was worth it, longing for continental warmth. I imagine a cave and an altar for someone who was not well. A private place where one might take difficult thoughts, and let out some weakness, and some sadness, alone.
Here was something that stood out, above and apart from the flood of information in my news feeds. An idea of a cave. There was something exquisite and tantalising about it. A few days later I decided it was time to leave social media behind. Until my attention span has healed; until I have re-learned how to read and write without distraction; or perhaps, forever. I wanted to return to a kind of life that was not performed, and to friendships not dictated by a media company. A life largely in private, where I might think my own thoughts.
So, I left my accounts hanging in an unremarkable week in April. For the first few days, I was uncomfortable. The twitch and tug of those addictive notifications were still appearing in my mind, although they weren't real. I kept picking up my phone then realising I had nothing to check. Then Apollo sent the sun out over one long weekend, and I sat in the heat in our little garden in Musselburgh and thought my thoughts. I thought about my abstinence from the lure of the news feed, and of how abstinence has such a dull reputation (I blame the ministers). It appears dreary, a punishment, a numb excess of control.
What is not so much acknowledged is the appeal. Abstinence can mean shielding oneself, protecting oneself. It can be a cave – peaceful and untroubled. Quite simply, for many who choose it, it means being free to be oneself.