This is a guest blog from Luke Williams, a social media trainer and strategist from Bournemouth. You can find out more about him and his work at Socialtech.biz.

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For nearly 20 years my friends and I have retreated to a small camp-site in the black mountains at Llanthony for a weekend in the summer. There’s not much there except for a ruined priory, an old toilet block (new for 2011… a soap dispenser!), drinking water tap and a pub…. not forgetting the epic scenery of course.

When I get away to Llanthony I like to switch off as much as possible from the world to recharge my batteries, reminisce on times gone by and reflect on life’s mysteries with old friends.

This year, I decided to try and switch off entirely – no mobile or internet for the bank holiday weekend.

How did I get on?

It was hard. I mean really hard… I live so much of my life online.

To switch off the phone (and by extension the internet) seemed so unnatural. I found myself removing it from my pocket to see if I had any @ replies, Facebook & txt messages or emails… I resisted.

The first real urge I fought was checking in to the camp-site on Foursquare. I’m not obsessed with the service as bad as some that I know, in fact I only really use it to share my location if I have time to kill while out on the road (often resulting in unplanned meetups) and as a physical bookmark for places I want to remember. I almost had a full blown argument with myself! The urge to check in and share with friends who couldn’t be there was huge (for the record, I succeed in resisting this one).

The largest problem I faced though was that being in beautiful surroundings I wanted to take photographs but my camera was part of my phone… so this meant an absurd process of switching my phone on, taking a photo and then having an internal struggle every time over whether to “just check….” – next year, I think I’ll take a separate camera to avoid this.

After the first day, this got easier but at times I felt a slight disconnection with my usual world… what was going on in Libya? How was my friends new pub going on it’s first bank holiday? Had that urgent client meeting been confirmed for Wednesday…? It was impossible not to peek a little, but this was limited to email and sms which downloaded themselves by virtue of switching my phone on.

By the end of day 2 I’d stopped obsessively checking my switched off phone and had wound down.

On the Saturday we went into Abergavenny as Fergus (one of the canine members of our group) had a scary looking tick in what can only be described as his beard that was causing him some distress.

First instinct? Google maps to find a pet shop.

They didn’t have any so straight back onto google maps for a second one… only whilst waiting for said tick to be (successfully) removed did it occur to me I could of just asked a passer by.

It hadn’t even crossed my mind, I just instinctively reached for google to answer my question.

And this was for me the biggest thing about a mere 4 days “offline”, technology has changed how I interact with the world – it’s my first response in most situations: take a photo or video, update twitter, check in on Foursquare, google the answer to a question… you know what, I think I’m okay with that.

So what about the next time I go on holiday?

Well… my next holiday is a week in Vegas and I’m going to allow myself to be online for that one… I mean, how else will my friends know that Elvis married me to some, as yet unknown, “lucky” lady at 3am in the little white chapel…?

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Want to share your tale of “blackspotting”? Drop us a line on info *at* blackspotting *dot* com.

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When I heard that my friend was taking a week off from the internet, I thought it would be good to see how she got on. So here’s a guest post from Laura Howe.

I was filling out a job application the other week and realised that every time I got bored I automatically checked Twitter and Facebook. Roughly every 10 minutes. So I obviously wasn’t getting the application done and at the same time was getting really angry with myself. So I decided to give up the internet for a week, just to see if I could.

I have a bit of an uneasy relationship with the internet. I love being able to express my pointless opinion to people I don’t know, but I get annoyed when I feel obliged to constantly check my email in case I miss something urgent. In my head I imagine email as a sort of Cronenburgesque umbilical cord, part biological, part digital, nurturing and sustaining but at the same time making escape impossible. (I try not to imagine this too often.)

So I decided to give up the internet for a week; no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, no half hours spent writing one hilarious yet incredibly perceptive status update. I started on a Friday – I was going back to Ireland for the weekend so knew I wouldn’t be going online anyway. 3 days down easy, four to go.

On the fifth day I found out I was starting a new project and so email was impossible to avoid. I really didn’t want to but I had no choice. This was both disturbing and revelatory – it is impossible to give up email when other people will still insist on communicating with you by email. Even if you leave an out of office message saying ‘I’m giving up the internet for a week, I’ll be back on Friday’.

Incidentally, don’t do this if you are subscribed to a mailing list – the repercussions are immense.

However I did manage to stay off Facebook and Twitter, and frankly it was a relief. But I didn’t win back time. I am trying to come up with reasons why, and at the end of the day I think it’s because, in the year 2010 our attention spans are minute, and our need for distraction is both constant and instantly satisfiable. There is always something more interesting you could be looking at on the internet. Even though the internet was a no-go area, my brain craved distraction. So I still didn’t get anything done.

Just so you know, since I started writing this last sentence I’ve spent 2 hours on Wikipedia reading about Prince Albert Victor and a timeline of LGBT history. 15 years ago if I got bored I made myself a cup of tea and went back to work.

So, yes, give up the internet for a while, but make sure everybody else does too.

Confession time: I’ve done all of these. And some of them regularly. I need to stop.

1 – The first thing you do on waking up is check your phone/laptop for emails, tweets or status updates
So, you’ve had your 8 hours beauty sleep. Your eyes creak open, you blink a few times, roll over, and fire up your phone. You scroll through all the tweets since you went to sleep. Do you really take any of them in in your half-asleep state? You haven’t even had a cup of tea yet, for pete’s sake! Priorities! The flip side of this is checking just before you go to sleep. So much for winding down at the end of the day….

2 – You’ve checked your emails while waiting for your computer to boot up.
So desperate are you to be on top of everything that you can’t even wait the 15-30 seconds it takes for your operating system to start up and deliver your data to you. I’ve been known to check my emails on my phone during the 10 metre walk from my car to my desk in the Dizzyjam office.

3 – When you see something cool/funny/silly your first thought is “Twitpic”!
You don’t even stop to laugh, gawp, gasp, or just enjoy the moment. You’re immediately thinking about how many people you can make laugh with that picture of a mis-spelled sign, or a dog with a hat on. And you’re probably secretly hoping for lots of retweets too. I’ve even wilfully tweeted stuff with the aim of picking up followers. It’s when my ego starts to become an element of social media that I worry.

4 – In your head you are already constructing the short, witty status update about the thing you’re watching before you even leave the cinema or theatre.
You turn your phone off when you go to the cinema or theatre not just out of respect for your fellow patrons, but so that you can fully engage in what’s in front of you. Before Facebook and Twitter I don’t ever remember sitting through a film thinking about how I’m going to describe it to my friends. I was totally “present” for the film/performance. It had my full attention. Only when the lights came up did I accept there was a world outside the confines of the theatre. That’s slowly being eroded, and it’s no-one’s fault but my own.

5 – There’s no “dead time” any more.
It’s a bit of a nebulous one, this. But picture the scene… You’re sat in a doctor’s waiting room, waiting for a bus, sat on the toilet, and you can’t help but fill that spare 30 seconds with an endless stream of links, bons mots, opinions and (often) drivel from friends, family and complete strangers. Nobody stares at the wall any more. I briefly left the cinema screen during the pre-trailer adverts last night to go to the toilet. Everyone was on their phones. Nobody was talking to their cine-buddy. It’s the death of accidental meditation. Those brief, vital, moments in our hectic lives where our brain just powers down for a minute, giving us important respite. I plan to try and re-introduce these….

So, how did you do? Scores out of 5 in the comments, please. Or any more that I should add?

p.s. My good friend DK is blogging his efforts to declutter his life in 100 hours. Not 100 consecutive hours as I initially thought (I had visions of him not sleeping for 4 days while he manically threw stuff out of his flat, and took the rest down the charity shop), but it makes a really interesting read, and I’ll be following closely. It mirrors a lot of what I spoke about at Green Man festival recently. You can see the slides of my talk here.

In a moment of pure synchronicity I received a tweet from Oli Barrett and a comment from Nick, both about Freedom, and both within a matter of about 5 minutes of each other.

Freedom is a simple program that you can install on your Mac or PC, then tell it for how long you want it to bar you from the internet.

I installed the free trial version and gave it a go. It’s very easy to install and use – I punched in “15 minutes” as a test to see how well it worked.

For that period my web browser wouldn’t load any pages, my Twitter client wouldn’t load any tweets, and my email client told me it couldn’t reach the server. I used that test period as an excuse to quickly tidy up my desk and finish off a few things that had been building up during the day. What was interesting was how many times in that 15 minute period I went to check my mails, Twitter etc or see if anyone had created any new shops on Dizzyjam. It’s clearly become habit rather than necessity.

And I got lots done in those 15 minutes.

The full version of Freedom is $10 and I can easily see myself purchasing it once my five free trial uses run out. It’s a no-brainer to spend such a small amount of money to improve my productivity by a potentially huge amount.

I previously had a Firefox add-on installed that I could configure to block me from certain sites during the day, but it was a little fiddly to use, and with the advent of smart-phones and standalone Twitter clients etc it was rendered fairly useless as my access to the web and social media was only partially through my browser.

Download the trial version here and let me know how you get on with it.

Update – just noticed that the guy who wrote this program also wrote a program that just blocks social media, or any other site you specify. Presumably you wouldn’t be able to access Facebook but your email and Wikipedia, for example, would still be accessible. Only available for Macs, it seems.

I was reading an article about philosopher Alain De Botton‘s involvement with ‘Living Architecture’,  “a social enterprise dedicated to the promotion and enjoyment of world-class modern architecture”. They’re basically making some incredible modern properties available to rent in the same way you’d hire a normal holiday cottage. I’ve always quite liked De Botton’s writing, so quickly headed over to the Living Architecture website – check out some of the pics of the amazing Balancing Barn (pictured left)! Maybe one day we’ll be able to afford to go to one of these on a blackspotting weekend?

While browsing I noted one of the properties appears to be called “The Secular Retreat”. Although it’s clearly not built yet, it made me realise that what I’m proposing is a secular retreat. A retreat is often defined as “temporarily removing oneself from one’s usual environment in order to become immersed in a particular subject matter”. And that subject matter is usually religious or spiritual. Look online for retreats and their are thousands of links for Buddhist and Christian retreats. But secular retreats are hard to come by, unless they’re linked to a topic – “marriage retreats”, “art retreats” & “culinary retreats” being just a few examples.

I’m surprised there’s not more demand for a space to just get away from it all and just think/relax/unwind, without the association of something spiritual.

Maybe that’s what holidays are for?

Licensed under Creative Commons from Spratmackrel on Flickr.

As I wrote on my personal blog, I’m looking to establish a regular event (maybe once a month), where a bunch of us can hang out for a day, free from all internet and social media distractions.

All will be welcome.

We’ll hopefully have two or three rooms. One for chatting and discussion of ideas. One for silence, reading & contemplation. All laptops, phones and other technology will not be allowed.

I’m looking for somewhere relatively central to Cardiff, for ease of access for everyone. But that might make it difficult to get the peace and seclusion that something like this might need.

After this, if all goes well I’d maybe look at organising a whole away weekend somewhere a little more rural.

So, Noreen suggested a place called Coed Hills, about 10 miles west of central Cardiff. And I walked past Llanover Hall earlier and think this might work well. It’s a short walk from the centre of Canton, but is opposite a park and is in a fairly quiet part of town.

Any ideas for other spaces? I’ve had lots of suggestions for big cottages many miles away, and they’ll all be considered if we decide that we all want to do a whole weekend somewhere. But for now if anyone has any thoughts on Cardiff venues with a few different rooms please add them to the comments.

Hello, and welcome to this blog about finding ways to not get overwhelmed by the internet and social media. For some background check out the about page. I’ll be posting links, articles and updating on some relevant personal projects that I’m embarking on.

Here’s a few links to get us started:

They’ve invented anti wifi paint.

University blocks access to social media for a week.

Charlie Brooker’s excellent piece, which sums it all up for me.