There are few more disconcerting times to emerge from a digital detox than Halloween weekend, glancing for the first time in ten days or so at friends' profiles to find that male friends have been transformed into zombies, and girls into ghouls. You know it's Halloween, of course, and that fancy dress is de rigeur, but just for a moment you can't help wondering just how long you've been away and what unearthly things have been going on...
It's an interesting perspective-giver, taking a break from social media and round-the-clock communication. My motivation was simple and, arguably, selfish: I was exhausted, I needed to stop looking at screens at night and catch up on some sleep; to look at screens much less during the day and catch up on living life. Exhausted from constant demands at work, I wondered if it might be helpful to step aside from the 24/7 twinkling demands of cyberspace: and it was, to the extent that I intend to continue the experiment as work begins again. The absence of screen time proved just as addictive as its constant use, and it turned out to be an unexpected pleasure to have long walks by the sea without stopping every few dozen steps to take a photo, like some sort of digital equivalent of a dog which insists on sniffing every lamp-post. I'm not very good at mindfulness (and don't even get me started on the Great Invasion of the Grown-Up Colouring Books and how inadequate they'd make me feel), but it's been useful to remind myself that life is for living, not for tweeting about... that the here and now will one day be then and gone, not something to waste by disappearing behind the tantalizing blue backlight of a phone screen.
Returning to Facebook and Twitter, on Halloween night and the morning after, was strange. Eerier than all the fake blood, fake pallor and deliberate spookiness was the realization that everyone's in fancy dress on social media most of the time anyway. The photo albums of Halloween parties may have shown people quite literally dressed to kill, but fifty other weekend albums show the same contacts dressed up, smiles plastered on which might be just as much of a mask as that face-painted Halloween Joker grin or skeletal rictus. The status updates about Halloween parties, fireworks, trick or treating with the kids, or carving the ritual pumpkin are just one teeny step away from the usual weekend chicanery of nights out, drinks, dinner parties and pretending to be shinier, happier people than we really are.
Think about it. It's everywhere. We all do it. We've all been guilty of the update which makes our life seem better than it is: the instagrammed coffee which is meant to look artfully awesome but which you really needed because your head was aching. The meet-up with friends which looks great in the group selfies but which became hopelessly stilted because every time anyone paused for breath, someone was photographing or hashtagging or uploading, interrupting the chat so constantly that it never really got beyond hello. We're all dressed in the fancy dress of lifestyle: a life which is much too short is passing us by because we're all so frenetically concerned with updating our status to make ourselves look cool.
Maybe that's what was interesting about Halloween for me this year: that the extremes of fancy dress just show us up for what we are, imposters riddled with status anxiety and insecurity, so busy playing tricks for an invisible crowd that we forget to notice the treats which lie apart from those seductive, backlit screens. Just as Halloween night is meant to send a shiver down the spine, I'm somehow scared and slightly disgusted by how much I've gazed at screens in the empty hope of finding greater fulfillment. I'm not saying I'm done with social media; I am, though, done with being convinced by the tales it tells. I don't think I believe in all those ghosts and ghouls and vampires - those shiny lifestyles, nasty indirects, those ghostly processions of empty promises...
But what do I know. I'm just someone who once scared off trick-or-treaters by turning out to be one of their teachers (they screamed and ran away) - or the teacher as whom an especially sardonic fourth former once dressed up for Halloween, walking around his home town in a black cloak, carrying a dictionary, correcting people's grammar on demand. But in reality, I'm running out of tricks and artifice.
Believing in the ghostly, illusory trickery of social media and forgetting about the treats of real life's simple pleasures: now that really is a scary thought.