The Internet is always being blamed for something. It seems like everyday, someone somewhere is complaining about how the web is distracting, easily addictive and a replacement for "real" life and friends. The reality is, it's true. Much like the "real world," the virtual version provides users with easy access to all sorts of debauchery and time wasting activities.
Unlike reality, however, the Internet seems to be a greater target for blame. The New York Times Magazine wrote a piece on internet trolls over the weekend that centered around a young woman who took naked photos of herself for an ex-boyfriend who "threatened to kill himself if she didn't pose for naked photographs toward the end of their abusive relationship." Predictably, they ended up online.
The article went into great detail about how unwitting victims have little recourse when such things happen. Sure, the ex who feigned suicide to get his girlfriend to pose nude and then disseminated them among his friends, one of whom posted them on the web with her name and a slur, is a pig who probably deserves an ass kicking, but it was ultimately the woman who made the choice to actually take the photos. If there is anything celebrity sex tapes have taught us, it is don't record anything digitally you aren't comfortable seeing distributed to the world.
Those of us who spend a lot of time working with and talking about web-based communities shrug off stories like this one that crop up on a nearly weekly basis. Someone is always bemoaning the triteness of Twitter or blaming internet porn and gambling for destroying the moral fabric of society. Ironically, blogs and websites are filled with cautionary tales of how web addition is bad for you. These are stories so meta, they should be ripping holes in the space time continuum.
But, a couple of days ago, local Houston social blog CultureMap posted a story by Sarah Byerley entitled "I gave up Facebook and it's the best decision I ever made: Becoming a true mystery date," which the blog, naturally, promoted via its Facebook page. Not everyone is heeding Ms. Byerley's advice, it would seem.
In the post, Byerley describes how she gave up the popular social networking site because she was "unhappy with the amount of time I was wasting creeping on people." She discovered that, after removing her profile, she found new uses for her time and even gained an extra 90 minutes of sleep each night because she wasn't spending that time on Facebook.
Byerley went on to recount a blind date, in which the "chance to get to know someone through conversation and not just through their movie tastes on Facebook was exciting." She continued:
There's a lot to be said for getting to know someone the old fashioned way. The relationship might not have lasted in the end, but those first few weeks were an experience unlike any other. I got to know someone based purely on real life interactions. I didn't go through all of his embarrassing high school pictures, and he didn't get to go through mine. We got to ask each other questions without already creepily knowing the answers.
While I admire Ms. Byerley for making a decision and sticking to it, I'd like to humbly submit that Facebook was not her problem. Spending hours of time "creeping" people on Facebook is not the fault of the website. Blaming social networking sites because you spend too much time reading them is like blaming alcohol for your hangover. Jack Daniels didn't forcibly pour bourbon down your throat any more than Mark Zuckerberg stood over your shoulder with a gun to your ear demanding you play Farmville.
I understand that some people probably shouldn't be involved in certain online behavior. I've known people who gave up online gambling, porn, social networking, commenting on political websites and so on because it was creating an emotional attachment that wasn't healthy. To all of them I say, "Bravo!" But, don't turn around and tell me that you had no choice but to download 10,000 gigabytes of x-rated video clips. You made that choice with your brain (or another part of your anatomy), not with your laptop.
What is most frustrating about stories such as this is they spend so much time decrying the addictive impulses and social disconnection sites like Facebook supposedly foster, they miss the point that all of these mediums are, ultimately, about connection.
Yes, there are times when this connection is creepy, uncomfortable or even criminal. But there are far more opportunities to meet people you may have never met, learn things you may have never learned and open yourself up to, literally, a world of possibilities, than there are dangers to be avoided. Frankly, it is no more difficult to figure out what to avoid online than it is offline.
Since connecting to the Internet in the early `90's, I have met new friends, re-connected with old friends, found business opportunities and learned about viewpoints I never knew existed. Instead of only consorting with people I know and with whom I agree, I have access to widely differing opinions and I'm better for it.
Sure, I've been heckled, taunted and even threatened. There have been times when it was awkward, scary and downright strange. But, how is that any different from real life? Maybe the delivery method is different, but we are all still people behind the eerie glow of the monitor and click-click-click of the keyboard.
If you don't want to be a part of it; if you prefer "old fashioned" interactions, by all means. But, don't blame the Internet for taking up all your time and keeping you from sleeping. After all, you are the one pointing the mouse.