Posted by tallulahlucy
My name is Tallulah and I’m a recovering chat addict.
I’m the girl who used to wake up and stumble straight to the computer before her eyes were even open; who would fall asleep with her phone in her hand, half way through typing a response. I’m a girl who installed eBuddy on her cellphone so she didn’t have to ever be off gtalk, who was one of MXit’s first subscribers and who purchased a phone with a QWERTY keyboard just so she could compose faster replies on the go.
You may well ask, doesn’t that just make me part of Generation-Y? Isn’t it a defining characteristic of the so-called Facebook generation? We want to be constantly connected, from the office to the car, from the car to home. Is this not normal?
As a proud millennial, I always thought it was. Since my first forays into Yahoo Chat as a 12-year-old, chat gave me so much and seemed to ask nothing in return. It is thanks in part to chat that I survived varsity, and it was chat that helped me keep my sanity when I first moved to the big city and was marooned in a not-so-safe bedsit without transport and precious little human contact outside of work. Chat was my drug of choice and it became a way of life. Like a drug, I grew dependent on it, suffered withdrawal when away from it. Like a drug, it carried a price. Just not one I was immediately aware of.
My first encounters with my drug were innocent fun messing around on the Yahoo Chat rooms (anyone else even remember those?). I was a social chatter, that was all. It was only when I moved to university that the true power of the drug took effect. I, an awkward nerdy teen, found solace in like-minded people on the campus chat room.
Having access to that chat room was like having friends constantly available, whenever I wanted them. Friends-on-demand. When I got back from lectures, there were messages waiting for me. When I was staying up all night working on an essay, I was not alone in my plight. When I grew hungry in the middle of the night, there were real people willing to offer food or drive me to the BP for supplies. The regulars on that chat room became like family to me (and some of them still are).
That chat room became an integral part of who I was for three years. And I became dependent on all it offered.
While that particular chat room could not follow me into the adult world, an IRC (internet relay chat) channel could. Independent of the university, some friends of mine had formed a chat room using an old chat server that could be accessed from anywhere.
My first year of being an independent adult was not a happy one and my only salvation was my drug. I would suruptitiously chat during work, sharing my anguish with virtual friends in far off places. As soon as I came home it was onto the phone (before I had Internet access), or onto the PC (when I got myself a dongle) to continue those conversations, to share blow-by-blow reports of what I was doing. (“I have 2 onions and some cheese, what can I make for dinner?” “You can make onion soup, here’s the recipe” or “I hear odd noises outside” “don’t worry, it’s probably the wind, but we’re here if you need someone to call the cops”.)
It was towards the end of that year that the dark side of my addiction became apparant. I started to realise that IRC was not just my crutch – it was everybody’s. Because that’s the nature of online, you see. It can be there when no one else can. The blessing and the curse. Online could be there for me in the middle of the night when no sane person should be awake. Online could be there for me when I was too busy studying to cultivate in the flesh relationships. Online could be there for me when I was in a new city and feeling isolated. And it could be there for the others when they’d been forced to move back home, when they were battling to come to terms with their sexuality, when they were depressed and couldn’t figure out why or find a cure, when the real people in their lives couldn’t understand them. When they were just feeling lonely.
Which in a way is wonderful. Previous generations never had this. Previous generations were forced to cope, were forced to come to terms with their aloneness, were forced to face their issues. They could not hide in the quasi-relationships onilne offers, in the camaraderie of strangers’ comfort, in the echo-chamber of emotion that wells up when so many broken people, with the shield of anonymity, come together in one space. They could not grow dependant on this barest of human touches the way we can.
An article in the May edition of The Atlantic speaks about how Facebook is making us lonely.
“We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information,” it says.
“In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. “
There’s been a bit of a backlash to that article, accusing it of offering people a scapegoat for their own social inadequacies. A friend and fellow blogger, Zoe, commented: “This article is one of those that cashes in on the isolation everyone feels when they just couldn’t be arsed to go outside. “
Personally I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.
You see, being connected online is so beautiful because it’s so easy. It’s convenient and it’s available whenever you want it. You can mold this kind of relationship to suit your life, no matter how busy or strange. It comes without the usual complications of real flesh-and-blood encounters: no awkward silences, no judgement based on looks or past actions. You can be who you want to be, when you want to be it, as often as you like.
It’s no wonder we get sucked in.
The trouble is online isn’t only there when real is absent. Online, by its very nature, is always there. Even when the people who populate that world log off, we’ve grown used to the time-space distanciation that allows us to send messages in our time and receive responses in theirs.
With the rise of social media, we’re being encouraged more and more to form online connections. Online connections require time and energy like physical ones do. They require emotional investment. The danger is that as we pour more and more of ourselves into these online relationships we have less left over for the real deal. We also get less out.
True, in some ways the global highway gives us more than we’ve ever had before: direct contact with those we respect and admire, a running commentary on all the people we know, access to communities of like-minded individuals. It oils the cogs of real-life friendships and social interaction. It gives us chances at love with people we never would have known otherwise. Tiny, insignificant, people become giants in the virtual reality of their social networks. I am the last person in the world to deny this.
When used in moderation, the Internet is one of the most amazing things to ever happen in the history of man.
But when it becomes your life, when your virtual friends become your only ones, when you only have contact with your real world connections over Facebook comments and tweets, when you put every ounce of yourself into inane conversations you won’t even remember in a few day’s time… to the detriment of any kind of hobby, or self-betterment in your free time… I think it’s a problem.
We can’t blame the technology, no. If it’s guilty of anything it’s of being too awesome. Blaming Facebook for the way people use it is like blaming alcohol for alcoholism. There are plenty of people who use it just to have a bit of fun or to enhance their lifestyles. I know though that at some stage I crossed the line and instead of enhancing my lifestyle, being connected became my lifestyle. I was a zombie wired up to the grid with no purpose but to feed it.
I watch kids on BBM, WhatsApp and MXit, and a part of me worries. It’s that part of me my friends call “Mommy Tally”. It’s not my place to worry, I know that. At the same time I can’t help but think: if you are surgically attached to your phone, how will you ever learn to play the piano? Or knit? Or fly a kite? Ride a bike? Bake a cake? Build a model airplane? Climb a tree?
The image of those humans from the movie Wall-E floats in front of my eyes in answer to this question. They won’t.
And perhaps their lives are okay without those things, I don’t know. It’s not for me to judge.
All I know is that mine wasn’t.
It’s been over a year since I last logged on to IRC. Now, instead of filling my free hours with inconsequential talk, I’ve been concentrating on my hobbies and improving my skills. That’s not to say that I don’t still engage in the odd inane conversation – I’m still an active tweeter – but it’s no longer my life. And because of that, I now have a life.
Besides, if I tweeted as much as I used to chat, I wouldn’t have a single follower, which kind of negates the purpose of the exercise, don’t you agree?