Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Confessions of an Internet Addict

July 12th, 2012

Newsweek's cover story this week posits that "new research says the Internet can make us lonely and depressed--and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness." Internet addict Alexis Madrigal wrote about his affliction for The Atlantic

Madrigal writes:

But imagine him lying there in the dark, face illuminated by a screen, scanning his Twitter feed for something to soothe his nerves, which connected to his brain, which had been rewired by a life on the Internet. 

If you put him in a brain scanner, instead of in bed in his middle class home next to his wife, you'd see that Madrigal's brain was different from non-Internet users. The areas responsible for gainful employment, communication skills, and quick thinking had grown; the areas responsible for appreciating network television and weekly magazines and the love of dirt under his fingernails had atrophied. There was something wrong with Madrigal relative to the people right before him, who had been addicted to more profitable mainstream media. 

While reading I was thinking, hey, I'm one of those faces he scans in his Twitter feed! Another fellow internet addict whose life and livelihood depend on my ability to connect with the rest of you and the world of strangers who can, at any time, become collaborators and friends. 

This, in fact, is how I met Alexis Madrigal. We become friends before his meteoric ascent, back when he tweeted about how he wished he could have a sugar glider in his pocket. He's a spectacular writer and thinker and we first struck up a correspondence on Twitter before meeting in person. His wife is also my friend. We've spent birthdays together, and Atlas Obscura Days (sometimes on the same day), and we've been there for each other during some trying times. 

Alexis goes on:

He made a partial list of friends, colleagues, and collaborators he'd met through the Interwebs and it did not feel like these people were a symptom of his disease: Megan Garber, Robin Sloan, Evgeny Morozov, Tim Maly, Robinson Meyer, Clay Shirky, Dan Sinker, Alexandra Samuel, Dave Roberts, Zeynep Tufekci, Clara Jeffery, Felix Salmon, multiple Chris Andersons, Rebecca Skloot, Chris Mims, John Pavlus, Sarah Weinman, Rita King, Josh Fouts, Jacob Wolman, Alex Howard, Maria Popova, Katie Baynes, Nathan Jurgenson, Biella Coleman, Gustavo Arellano, Jon Christensen, David Dobbs, Steve Silberman, Ian Bogost.

Many of the people on this list are also friends of mine. Like Alexis, I met them through the magical connection we share in the ether. One of them, Joshua Fouts, I met in Second Life in 2007 and have continued to collaborate with for half a decade now. We've traveled to 17 countries together and we've transformed ourselves individually and together through this connection, first made in the form of a giant green avatar with blue dreadlocks. They say if you don't like someone's avatar, you probably won't like them, since an avatar is an extension of one's imagination, free from the physical fetters that dominate the way we appear in person. 

I knew when I started following the brilliant Maria Popova's @brainpicker Twitter feed that we would be friends when we finally met in person. And we have been, ever since. We may have met through Alexis' wife, Sarah, or maybe Helen Walters. I don't know now. But I do know that we met first on the internet.

Other friends, like the writer Mac Tonnies, I never did meet in person though we communicated regularly across many digital platforms. The last thing he did before he died unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 34 was send me a message on Twitter. (I get interviewed about his death a lot, like in this cover story, Cyberspace When You're Dead, in The New York Times magazine. I wish he'd gotten a fraction of the press he gets now while he was still alive, but that's another story). 

The reason Mac's death is news is because those of us who never met him in person yet maintained very active collaborative friendships with him via the internet grieved so much when he died that we found each other just to have a way to express it and do something productive with the pain. I have memories of avatars who became real and some who never did. Avatars on Twitter sometimes become real people. I once had a party and while I was at the door letting someone in I overheard a conversation, "I met Rita on Twitter. I met Rita on Twitter too. Did anyone here not meet Rita on Twitter?" 

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