Don't Blame the Internet

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (18-Sep-2007)

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I recently had a conversation with some non-IT people—real fast talking, extroverted, type-A personalities who are accustomed to wheeling and dealing on a face-to-face level—who insist that the Internet is creating a disconnected society, making people less likely to interact with others. But this is rather myopic.

It's easy to harp on the Internet's addictive dark side. There are the basement dwelling misanthropes who, because of their own feelings of inadequacy, seek infamy by hacking into large networks or attempting to code the next killer virus. And then there are those who shut themselves up in cybercafés and "live" inside World of Warcraft, clutching a mouse in one hand and a can of Red Bull in the other. Even as I was writing this piece, a news story flashed on my monitor that highlighted this unfortunate dark side: A 30-year old Chinese man died in an Internet café after a three-day online marathon. The preliminary findings indicate that this prolonged session could have triggered some sort of heart failure.

But the focus shouldn't be placed on the Internet, it should be placed on how you use it. Anything taken to extremes can lead to obsessive-compulsive behavior and a withdrawal from social interaction. You can live inside a bottle, you can live inside a casino, and you can live inside the Internet. Even collecting stamps can become an addiction. I can just picture some poor stamp collector exhibiting Howard Hughes-like behavior in his desperate search for an Inverted Jenny.

Yes, the Internet can be addictive. Yes, the Internet can make it difficult for users to say goodbye to their digital friends and share a pint with their flesh-and-bones friends. And yes, the Internet can breed anti-social behavior—but only if you allow it to.

While there are those who decry the Internet as a harbinger of social isolation, I prefer to see it as the opposite. The Internet has allowed me to meet people I otherwise would never have had the opportunity to meet. I've met fellow writers, journalist, and IT professionals from all over the world—Canada, the US, Europe, and Australia. Some of these people I keep in touch with on a regular basis. I even recently connected with a fellow writer who lives in a tiny and remote Greek island, and reconnected with some people I went to high school and college with. I did all this without leaving my home office. This is the antithesis of social isolation.

The Internet gives millions of users the opportunity to connect with others like no other medium. Granted, they might not be speaking face-to-face, but that's only one method of communication. The Internet and social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn allow users to navigate virtual communities free of borders. When I was in elementary school, way before the Internet, we had something similar: A pen pal program. And I recall how exciting it was when I got to correspond with students from other countries. Now we're using e-mail and Web sites instead of paper and stamps.

If you try hard enough, you can find the worst in anything—but you can also find the best in anything. Take the Free Hugs Campaign as an example of how using the Internet—in this case Youtube—allowed a single individual to create a global, random act of kindness phenomenon.

The Internet is just a tool. It's used for information, communication, and entertainment. Whether this tool has a negative or positive impact upon an individual boils down to a matter of perception and how the tool is used. If abused, is it no wonder that there will be negative consequences? Although I work with the Internet, I'm not consumed by it. I know when to log off and take a walk in the sun—and that's what makes all the difference. I've come to understand that the best way to avoid letting the Internet create this social disconnect is to... well, to disconnect from the Internet every once in a while.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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