25 AUGUST 2006
I bought the NewScientist today because of its lead article “Why your brain is primed for addiction.” I have my own theory about addiction and wondered how it compared to actual research.
The article included case studies about various addicted people. One was of a 16-year old boy who spends 70 hours a week (mostly at night) online, socialising. The author writes: “he has few friends in the real world” (my emphasis) and ends with “he denies he is addicted to his computer.”
I’d like to yell at the author: “he’s not addicted to his computer, you bozo!”
Having also spent many hours online socialising, many through the night, it’s time to get a few things off my chest about this supposed unreal world in which I made many of my friends. Oh, and where I happened to meet the person I’ve been with for the last 18 years.
The Computer Addict
From NewScientist, page 34, 26 August 2006.
“Jamie” is a 16-year-old living alone with his mother. He spends around 70 hours a week on his computer. He admits that the Internet is the most important thing in his life – he likes socialising online with fellow science-fiction buffs, though he has few friends in the real world. He is overweight and unconfident, but he says the Internet improves his mood. He thinks about it all the time, and gets withdrawal symptoms, becoming irritable and shaky if he cannot go online when he wants to. He sleeps irregularly, mostly logging on at night, but he denies he is addicted to his computer.
The Real World
When people describe the off-line world as the real world, it’s as if they are saying that nothing online is real.
Their litany starts with “but how can you be sure anyone’s what they say they are?” It soon becomes clear that this is a simple case of projection; the people who say this are usually journalists who go into some chat room and pretend to be someone of the opposite sex (that’s what they say they do in their review!). Because they created a false persona, they assume that everyone else does too.
Perhaps that’s why the second criticism is soon to follow “the people who chat online are losers / have no social skills / should get a life”. Sure, if everyone who went online did so through a fake persona, I might agree. But most people don’t. Then there’s “but it’s not real.”
And that’s when my head explodes.
So, here’s the thing: The Internet is just a communication medium.
It’s in the same class as writing a letter, calling someone on the telephone, sending a fax, sending a text message on a phone or using sign language. Why is what is communicated on the Internet not real?
When does communication stop being real?
Let’s start with an easy one: two people, face-to-face – they can see and hear each other. That’s real, isn’t it? If they chat and form a friendship, their friendship is real too, isn’t it?
Okay, what if one of them is blind and so can only hear the other person. Is the friendship that develops any less real because one of them can’t see the person they’re talking to? Or they’re both deaf and talk through sign language. Does not being able to hear voices make their relationships less real?
What if someone calls the other on the telephone. Is that real? (Perhaps when I call a shop to place an order, the salesperson should say “sorry, madam, I can’t take your order – you’re not real”).
In fact, if two people meet through a phone-dating service, are their conversations and feelings not real?
What if someone cannot speak and uses a telephone typewriter to communicate? To someone they know? To someone they’ve never met in person? For example, a new teacher? Are any of these not real?
I just don’t get the idea that relationships formed first online and through written medium aren’t real.
There are many famous letter-based relationships – why are relationships in which people communicate through chat and e-mail less real, less important?
That’s my rant. I hope I’ve made my point.
It’s more real online
I would argue that, in some respects, the online world is more real than the off-line one.
We live in a world which some say could be the only inhabited planet in the vastness that is the universe and yet, if I were to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to me on a bus, most people would think I was mad. Chatting with strangers is unwanted and we adopt sub-conscious behaviours to avoid people such as keeping our distance and not making eye contact when we’re forced into close proximity, for example on a train or in a queue.
I think it’s more crazy to pretend that we’re not surrounded by interesting and different people and to not want to talk to them.
I love talking to new people – I always grab the chance to talk to different kinds of people and find out about their lives. I always chat to taxi drivers; I’ve had some really great conversations!
When done ‘properly’, online chat is like getting to climb into someone else’s head to have a good rummage around.
In the off-line world, if someone doesn’t like you or what you’re saying, they’re not that likely to tell you to your face. Instead, they’ll avoid eye contact, look distracted, glance at their watch and finally make an excuse to leave. People forget because it’s part of everyday life, but we wrap ourselves up in a barrier of social norms and politeness. It’s very rare that people really see us.
It’s not like that online.
If someone doesn’t like what you’re saying, they’ll just leave. They don’t have to make an excuse; they can leave the ‘room’ and not give a reason, or they could quit out the program as if their computer has crashed and then log in with a new nickname.
It’s startling when that happens to you but it’s liberating. It means that if someone sticks around to talk with you, it’s because they want to, because they’re actually interested (or because they have nothing better to do). I’m not sure that people realise how powerful and compelling that realisation is. Nor what an opportunity it is.
Getting to know someone from the inside out
When two strangers find enough in common to chat all night online, they may be in different countries and never likely to meet but it doesn’t matter. For a rare time, you’re giving someone your full attention, you’re really ‘looking’ at them, you’re interested, you’re entertained. It’s intense. It’s addictive. (I last chatted online in 2000 – I sometimes miss it but know I’d never be able to limit it to just an hour a day.)
(And, by the way, me and “Jamie” go online at night is because that’s when most people are online – from America or the other side of the world.)
Does it matter that you’ll never meet in person? Or that you might never talk like that again? No. It matters that for a few hours, these people revealed themselves, that they cut through the crap, that they were truly themselves; they were frank and honest and their real self was seen by someone, something that rarely happens off-line with everyday friends, let alone people who have just met.
And this is without all the crap that gets in the way such as gender (I chat with a genderless name), age, nationality, size, height, colour, job. All the stuff that can prejudice someone against you from across the room doesn’t exist online (unless you choose to reveal the information and despite the annoying “a/s/l?” [age, sex, location] you are sometimes greeted with).
Instead there are other factors such as what you know, what you’re interested in and how you write. (Perhaps most people don’t chat the way I did. I am incapable of doing anything in moderation and maybe I just figured out how to get the most out of the medium. Indeed, I once contemplated writing a book called How to chat.)
It would be remiss of me not to mention the downside of online friendships and online communication.
You can’t see people’s body language and so (unless you’re a pessimist) without evidence to the contrary, you think that what you’re saying is extremely amusing and clever and that the other person is listening with rapt attention, enchanted and enthralled.
Of course, this is usually not the case but, as I’ve said for many years, people fill the gaps online with Wishful Thinking.
What happens is that you get carried away into thinking that someone likes you. For all you know, they’re at their computer picking their nose, or have wandered off to play with their cat or to make a cup of tea. But your wishful thinking that things are going well changes your behaviour and makes you more friendly, more warm. It’s picked up by the other person who starts to feel more positively towards you and their behaviour changes too. Before you know it, the wishful thinking becomes a reality: you are really close and you are good friends (not a downside, as it turns out).
Then there’s the (inevitable) paranoia that fills unexplained silences. This is when there is a painfully long gap before someone responds in real-time chat or in e-mail. Again, despite evidence to the contrary (and I’m embarrassed to say this), it’s easy to forget that the other person has a life outside (okay, so sue me). So, the unexplained silence is filled with “did I say something wrong?” When, really, they’ve just gone to the loo, their connection’s down, their computer’s crashed (but left them logged in) or more likely, they’ve actually got another window open and are chatting to someone else at the same time.
What about “Jamie”?
In the end, “Jamie” does have friends. He has a place to go to hang out with his friends. It happens to be online. He’s probably got more friends than many other children of his age who live alone with their mum.
I hope he will choose to meet some of his online friends in person one day so that he can find out that they’re just like him, ordinary kids with insecurities.
Jamie is learning how to make and keep friends. He is learning how to communicate, how to socialise. It would be ridiculous to say that NONE of these skills is transferable to off-line relationships.
If, for sake of argument, Jamie had a disability that made him house-bound, do you think his mum would tell him “you’re wasting your time, son – none of this Internet stuff is real” or do you think she would be relieved that, despite his disability, he had a rich social life?