Reflecting upon retweets – more musings on the pitfalls of social media

I’ve not been using Twitter since shortly after the Winterwatch feature aired and wrote about why, in this blog A break from a skewed world. The response to the actual video was overwhelming and so was the emotional crash afterwards, I can’t function properly in a world of complete ups-and-downs like that. Not many people can.

Since I stopped posting on Twitter, I’ve been reading a lot of studies into the effects of social media on our wellbeing. Not only is it relevant to my job, but it’s also relevant to myself, and my ongoing battle with my own social media demons. You see, we only post what we want people to see – good or bad – and I feel strongly that we only do this in the interests of self-affirmation.

This blog post came from a bit of an experiment. I realised, when I wrote a blog on birdsong in springtime, that it automatically posted to my Twitter. I also realised that this would indicate whether anyone actually ‘cares’ about what I write. You see, any post of mine that’s been ‘popular’ has either been off the back of something media-related or from ‘known’ people sharing it. Obviously that’s how you build something, of course it is, but if you can’t maintain that level of engagement and content, it’s exhausting and anxiety-inducing, not-to-mention near enough impossible.

I know that I can post this on my blog and not that many people will read it. That becomes cathartic in itself. A bit like a diary or journal, I can share these perspectives and air them, on a platform that is more for me, than to garner whatever it is I’m trying to get from people on Twitter. The beautiful thing is that I can write this and it posts once, I can’t login to my Twitter at the moment and so I can’t fall into the trap of retweeting and deleting in a search for reassurance and validation. I’ve been watching from afar and it’s amazing how many other people fall into this trap.

We ‘like’ the pictures that we see, not always the words or perhaps any deeper content, such as a blog. We tend to see something attractive to us and think we like it, so click to affirm that we do. We may then share it ourselves, so other people can see it, because we want people to know that we like it. In a weird way, likes and shares and whatever they are on other platforms, are almost like a currency.

I read somewhere that when we post something, we check it, relentlessly, for 48 hours after. I noticed that at the peak of my obsessive usage, I wanted to post every other day, to keep ‘interest’ up – so perhaps there’s something legitimate in that timeframe. Through my distant observations, I’ve seen others doing this too.

Even when we post something that isn’t directly about us, we’re still doing it for a reaction and for attention. I have no doubts that we do and see things and coincidentally, we share it, but most content is engineered to impress – to show something off. How many times have you looked at an object or view and thought ‘that would be great on my instagram’? That’s when posting becomes part of our lives – a routine of sorts. A bit like the person filming a concert on their phone.

It’s fascinating. It’s dangerous and it’s also a really engrained part of our society. I’m reminded of something that the wonderful author Melissa Harrison tweeted to me, during another time of ‘twitter turmoil’

Never a truer word spoken.

Winterwatch video

If you couldn’t or didn’t watch it, or perhaps didn’t know we’d done it, I recorded a feature on Bird Therapy with Chris Packham which was aired in January on Winterwatch.

The feature focuses on mine and Chris’s experience of suicidal thoughts, how I discovered birdwatching, how it can help promote wellbeing and engaging with it. I’m really proud of the overall feature and the messages it conveys. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

I uploaded the video to YouTube a while back and you can watch it here

The proof is in the final proof

Yesterday morning was shepherded in by streams of gulls. Regular pulses of birds in linear formations, making their dawn flights to daytime feeding grounds. On the drive to work, two Skylarks bounced up from a field boundary and over the car. I couldn’t hear their streams of bubbly notes, but I recognised their pot-bellies and triangular wings. On other morning commutes, I’ve observed many birds – Fieldfares roving, Linnets arcing, Cormorants darting and Pink-feet returning – all above the same familiar road. Not yesterday though, yesterday was a normal day.

Until early afternoon, when I received an email from the editor of Bird Therapy with the FINAL proof attached for my perusal and approval. A flood of emotions poured over me, from petrified excitement to gnawing doubt. I knew that all the final edits were done, so I had a flick (well – a scroll) through it and checked the illustrations were all ok; and yes, it really was finished!

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Four years of writing; of ink and emotions bleeding into notepad after notepad. The research and reading, so enlightening but time-devouring. The conversations and discussions, the friends, both lost and found. The frustration, the lows, the lack of confidence that I could get the message across in the right way. Not to mention the crowdfund, that was a different beast altogether!

I’d laid my heart on the page in the book, but I laid it on the line with the crowdfund. I’d been reluctant to even consider it to begin with, and throughout the funding phase, the pressure was immense. Mostly self-imposed, this pressure are away at me constantly and became an obsession. Checking, posting, deleting, rewording, pleading – it was horrible. I was very lucky, that lots of people (hundreds in-fact) believed in the book and in me. The process continued, behind the scenes as edit upon edit ensued, but the ballooning pressure deflated as the target was met.

Yesterday, seeing that final proof, was the culmination of all of that work, emotion and pressure – the release was incredible.

The final cover for Bird Therapy

I’m delighted that today has seen the finalisation of the whole cover of Bird Therapy. It’s a PPC cover, so will be lovely and tactile and at some point, I’ll share the endpapers too – which are equally as beautiful. Some of the comments from my most respected and favourite authors who have read it, have been overwhelming – I’ve shared some of these here too.

The book is available to preorder at Unbound and also on Amazon

A week away, some well-stocked feeders and a stone-age pit

This week, we’ve been at Center Parcs in Elveden for a little half-term break. I’ve been several times and rate it highly, both for children and for disabled access, as I supported someone with a learning disability to visit there twice, in a previous job. I’d always known that it’s good for resident wildlife: deer, squirrels, woodland birds and butterflies – but I’d never fully connected with the birdlife there until this visit.

Every morning, I spent 30-40 minutes in the observation hide. This slightly raised wooden oblong sits on the precipice of a large dip in the ground, which like some other Breckland sites, is the remnant of some stone-age workings. The dip is surrounded by trees, young and old, and a small pond sits at its nadir, where all of the birds seemed to enjoy a wash and a drink. The array of feeders there is brilliant and one morning I watched them being filled – a military operation of raising, lowering, scooping and pouring, which took twenty minutes to complete.

When the maintenance team left the birds began to return, tentatively. Blue and Great Tits arrived first in a flicker of blue or blacky-green, offset against bright yellow, a glint and then gone. The skittish flock of Chaffinches came out of hiding and returned to their methodical ground-feeding routines. A peach-blush Brambling stood out amongst them, warm, bold and black-barred.

A whistling buzz heralded the return of a pair of Siskin to the niger feeders directly in front, offering an eye-level observation of their lemon-yellow zebra-stripes. Their meal was short-lived as a dark scythe cut through the hollow, past their feeders in a rush, down to the next set and then rapidly altering course as it failed to catch its own breakfast. A Sparrowhawk, taking a chance on an easy feed. Dispersing every bird in the vicinity in a cacophony of rapid and urgent warning calls.

An obvious call, one known well, echoed out over the open space – “pit-choo” – a Marsh Tit. A sound that became familiar around the woodland park, as did the whip-like contact calls of the pair of Nuthatches frequenting the car-park Oaks.

The week ended with 40 species of bird being seen around the park – mainly in the hide and on the lakes. It was in the hide though, that I was able to completely switch off from everything for a few moments. It was just me and the birds; and it meant that I could spend some time really focusing on, and enjoying, some of the more common bird species. I found myself stripping back to the basics of birdwatching again and it was wonderful. Just like this male Blackbird, whose feathers caught the sun in a dazzling display of depth and light. Magic.

Sing a song of springtime

I’ve felt a great uplift in my mood over the last few days. Perhaps due to the rise in temperature, to the point where it isn’t cold in the car when you first get into it for the morning commute; the steering wheel no-longer numbing to the touch. It was on the way out to the car one morning, that I stopped and listened fully, for what felt like the first time this year. Two melodies floated across the airwaves and two very different ones at that. Their sonic textures signifying the contrast between rough and smooth and perhaps, dark and light. A Dunnock and a Wren.

The Wren’s song is precise. A stuttering, strafing staccato of short and spiky notes. The Dunnock is more fluid. A bubbly and positive, liquid melody. As I tuned in more, the Wren ceased to rattle, but there were now two Dunnocks, singing from different gardens and staking their territorial claims. A punch punctuates the air, disyllabic and redolent of this life-giving season – ‘teach-er’ – a Great Tit in the hedgerow, somewhere.

And more. The wheezy, descending certainty of a Chaffinch, somewhere around the Oaks – their topmost branches are house to a parliament of Rooks, harshly discussing their airs and graces from up high. Closer, the resident House Sparrows chit, chip and chatter, like the Friday-night hubbub of a packed local. The Dunnock jangles again and the glinting gadgetry of a pair of Goldfinches mechanises overhead.

It’s never just one individual bird sound, it’s all about the layers. Songs and calls, both bold and subtle and all around us. Now is the time of the year when this sonic stratification becomes more evident. Male birds are posturing and presenting to confirm territories and attract breeding partners and in their wonderfully simple world, it’s all that matters. I stop, breathe and listen – and it truly is all that matters, just for a moment.

A break from a skewed world

As I said at the end of my feature on Winterwatch last week “job done” – well at least for a little while anyway. The video reached out to a wider audience than I ever anticipated it would, and the response has been phenomenal. To know that your words and story can resonate with so many people is an incredibly powerful thing and I’m forever indebted to the ‘watches’ team for offering me the opportunity. It also seems like the video helped other people who’ve had similar experiences, past and present, to feel less isolated and reinforced to them, that it’s actually ok to talk openly about our thoughts and feelings.

YT SS

What also followed was a surge of interactions on social media – of which I’ve tried to acknowledge and engage with as many as possible. It also brought with it a deluge of ‘followers’ and ‘notifications’ and so my ongoing issues with social media began to surface yet again. I keep telling myself that this is all genuine interest and I’m sure that some of it is, but I know deep inside of me, that success is just temporary and a new ‘flavour of the moment’ will rise in place. Many of these interactions are just a number – a click of a symbol – that ultimately means nothing. I reached 10,000 followers on Twitter, but less than 1000 of them have purchased the book. It’s such a skewed world.

But now I’m craving that constant ‘buzzing’ on my feed. I’m comparing myself to others on Twitter again, fuelling feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing; and I’m getting hung up on the concept of false popularity once more. I’m conjuring tweets in my mind just for the sake of posting them, not to actually do good and help people It’s self-gratification and it’s bullshit!

My ‘work’ – if you can call it that – isn’t about that and I can feel myself obsessing and mentally wobbling. I just can’t seem to find a happy medium. I’m ecstatic when someone feels they can message me to share dark and personal things with me, but then the ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ slow up and suddenly – I’m thinking that nobody cares again. I’m checking my feed all the time again: toilet, after a shower, even in bed – it just ISN’T HEALTHY!

I just know that it is and will always be a constant and unwavering battle for me to have a healthy relationship with social media; so I’m going to drop out again for a bit and like before, I’ll return, stronger. The same person will change my password for me so that I can’t login and whilst this may seem extreme to ‘new’ followers, those who’ve been with me on this undulating journey, will know that it’s right for me.

There’s nothing consistent about social media. It ebbs and flows in fits and starts; and if you have issues managing your wellbeing around self-regulation and worth – it can become a pit of despair at times. What’s more is that the areas I ‘operate’ in, can often present as a bit of a closed circle, which feels ridiculously hard to break into. I just don’t have the energy to keep trying. This life of likes and figures just heightens my anxiety – it’s rubbish.

Before you ‘unfollow’ me – here’s some context. Bird Therapy isn’t my job. I’m a full-time SENCO in a behavioural school and currently studying for my masters-level practise qualification (with an action research project about to begin) and when I get home, I have a 7.5 month old daughter who needs lots of Daddy cuddles and playtime! I ‘do’ Bird Therapy because I love and live it. I write and share to try and help others, by trying to make it ok to talk openly about mental health. That will never change.

I aim to come back on here at the end of April, as I’m speaking at a fairly large local event in May and feel strongly about promoting it, as it’s a cause very close to my heart. In the meantime:

  • I have a run of t-shirts going on MerchT here which needs 7 more to sell and go to print. 50% of profits will go to local men’s mental health drop-in Norwich Mens Shed for materials to build more bird-boxes and tables
  • I’ve also uploaded the full video from Winterwatch on YouTube here so please do watch and share.
  • If you want to contact me about ANYTHING – then please don’t hesitate to do so. The best way is to use the contact page on here as it goes straight to my email, which is birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk
  • I’ll probably still post blogs, if and when I get an opportunity to do some spring birdwatching.

Love to you all

Joe

Farewell to my fallback plan – the passing of a place

Last weekend, I discovered that a local birdwatcher is moving into the lodge park at my patch. I should be happy, but it’s actually ripped me apart and I’ll explain why. For four years now (this would have been the fifth), I’ve been visiting pretty much the same site for birdwatching and it’s been my haven. When my mind is racing and my head is pounding, the sweeping view across the enclosed lake, swallows up my troubles and absorbs my anxieties. It’s my natural safety net. My escape.

I gained access to the park in the very early days of my mental health recovery. It’s a part of that time of my life. An important time, of self-discovery and positive change. My journey. Those bygone days were filled with excitement as I developed an understanding of the place I was visiting. Its natural nuances and its resident birds.

I began to mentally map the locations of breeding birds and where I’d observed more interesting or scarcer species. This made an imprint, like a heat map, in my subconscious.

I knew and together we grew.

As the seasons changed, I lived the seasonal movements as if I were part of the land. It was an undercurrent to the progressive improvements in my mood and mindset – a place I could rely on if I needed to escape. A welcoming hug when I was struggling or having a bad day.

I took people there and showed them round. We walked past the area of tussock sedge where the Reed Bunting family lived. We passed through the scrub tunnel to my duck-counting bank. We ambled Across to the giant buddleia that brimmed with butterflies in the summer months and we marched, down to the south side, where Little Grebe would laugh and hide amongst the reed fringes. Once a month I counted the ducks for a WeBS count, a BTO citizen science initiative. I was connected, deeply and truly, to the land there.

I write in the past tense. For my connection is so intrinsic to me, that I know I can’t share it with another person. I know it’s selfish. I know that from many a birdwatchers perspective, more eyes means more birds; but it’s never just been about the birds there for me.

As I grew – my understanding of myself, my responses and my thought processes – so grew my understanding of this patch and of the rhythms and cycles of the most fundamental elements of being. I’m not even sure that I can go back there at all now, as those deep roots feel as though they’ve been savagely torn out of the ground.

Yes, my writing and ethos is bedded in inclusion and sharing, but I’m not ashamed or uncomfortable in admitting that this, I just don’t want to share.

I have four wonderful years of memories. I have a plethora of bird sightings, mapping breeding and migrating birds at a focused local site. I’ve written page upon page in the book about how we are (were) connected and I have a vast collection of sumptuous photos, celebrating the natural beauty of a stunning site. More importantly though; I have my family, my career and my garden bird community to focus on. My daughter had visited. If hoped she would perhaps love this place too one day. Plus, this summer will be hectic with the book, so I’d probably only struggle with feelings of missing out anyway. At least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself.

The patch and I had a fitting send-off though. Last week I filmed a short video with Chris Packham for WinterWatch (airing next week) and I’ll treasure this as my final farewell to my fallback plan. For me, it is, the passing of a place.

Connecting through competition

Every year at the start of January, my local area birdwatching group orchestrates an annual bird count – often referred to as their bird ‘race’. The boundaries are set to the confines of the recording area the group operates in; and the count itself begins at 8am – ending at 4:30pm I noted to utilise all of the available hours of daylight. Shorter in these early days of the year.

In principle, the idea of a bird race jars with my overall approach to birdwatching. I champion a back-to-basics approach and often find that adding these unnecessary layers to any interest, starts to make it complicated and more difficult to emotionally regulate. That said, I also champion the connective power of birdwatching and an inclusive activity, like the bird race, radiates with it.

Mainly though, in these shorter and darker days, when our moods and tempers fray with the loose ends of rising and falling in blackness – the bird race is a respite and a reason, to spend a day outdoors and invigorated, with a sense of purpose. An aim.

In the lead up to the day of the race, my teammate and I were in regular contact as we tried to narrow down the places we were going to visit. I have a decent grasp of the local area and have spent lots of time, alone at various sites, looking for and enjoying the resident and visiting birds. In-fact, my connection with the local area is a tangible force.

It’s a bit like licking your finger and sticking it in the air to determine the wind direction; just being out there, in the measured wilderness, I know. A lot of it comes down to the innate calendar of winter – a rhythm – that beats through me in these colder and more static times. A constancy in their presence. The Pochard on the lake. The Jack Snipe in the mire. I know what’s going to be there because I can feel it in the air.

He trusted my intuition and we were rewarded, my friend and I. The day was frenetic. It rushed and darted, paced and paused. From site-to-site, lake to field and hedgerow to mill-pool – we checked and noted every new species until we reached 77. Ducks and finches, tits and grebes, to thrushes and geese. A plethora of birds, variety bringing wonder and consistency as it does to every nature experience and nuance of exploring a local area. A place.

The warmth of a village hall offsetting the cool evening air outside. A communal hub, where we competitors, met for hot drinks, homemade cake and glowing conversation. Lemon drizzle crumbs and talk of that elusive Whooper Swan. Mirth and laughter in the air as the ever-creeping anxiety grew with a tangible desire to be crowned winners. Scores were gathered and two teams were left – ours and one other. We were to reveal our scores at the same time. A tie – 77 each.

In that room sat 13 teams, making up at least 40 people and perhaps close to 50 years between the youngest and oldest people there. Yet for all of the differences in our lives; status, family, career, heritage and so-on – we were connected. Connected by a passion for birds and nature. Connected with love for our local area.

Connected through competition.