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Illustration by Jeremy Russell

Alone Online

Loneliness is not a virtual state

By Annalee Newitz

I'm one of those proverbial romantic-depressive lame-asses who love the rain. And it started raining again this week, the sky and buildings and air taking on a surreal gray glow and freaky wet vividness. The atmosphere reminded me of being online.

And this in turn reminded me of the trippy loneliness of a life lived completely through the web. Recently I chatted with somebody whose odd and yet crucial role in forming an Internet community had intrigued me for years. I'd been a frequent visitor to his website since I first found it in 1997, and its content had always shocked and excited me. Anyway, I finally got a chance to talk to him on the phone for the second time in three years, and he revealed to me that nobody "in real life" (that is, people in his circles offline) knew about his popular underground site.

"I always wonder if I should list it on my résumé, but I never do," he said quietly, adding in an even softer voice, "You're the only person I've ever talked to about it in real life." It was weird to find out that this person, whose presence online has helped define a small but active community, had literally never talked to anyone about it verbally or face-to-face or whatever. I can't remember what I said to him in response--probably some unhelpful, West Coast, jingoistic truism like, "Why don't you move to San Francisco, where everybody is out about everything?"

Then we turned back to talking about his website, and finally, after several more minutes, we said good-bye, hung up, and he went back to a life in which he had never once spoken aloud any of his most compelling desires nor shared his written work: he only revealed himself to people online. Of course the pundits--particularly the irrationally Luddite ones--tell us about this situation all the time, and would probably consider my shy webmaster friend pathetic, or neurotic at best.

It's true that he's lost something--certain physical and emotional rewards--by making his true self available only to those who know him through an assumed name online. Then again, he's also helped form a community of writers and readers who communicate through stories and message boards and email. Most people "in real life" cannot claim to have had such a benevolent social impact.

The flip side of this equation was that he never told me his real name and only admitted reluctantly where he lived and what he did for a living. I wondered if he was a part of a real-life community as rich as the one he created online, a community to which I could have no access because I was one of his online-only friends. And so, ultimately, what this guy was missing wasn't really the so-called rewards or importance of "real life," but instead, a fundamental connection between two parts of his personality. There was the person whom all our online counterparts and I knew: writer and webmaster, passionate about an arcane but titillating subject. And then there was probably--at least in my imagination--a shy tech administrator, probably a little geeky and socially awkward, but polite and kind. Nobody had the pleasure of knowing both sides of him. I speculated about why this might be.

It could be that his "real life" community--in an industrial East Coast state--had very narrow views of what an acceptable lifestyle might be. Presumably an ongoing obsession with fantastical topics wouldn't be part of that. Or maybe his divided life was self-imposed. Perhaps, ironically, he was afraid that uniting his split selves might drive him insane.

No matter what the reason, you can be sure that his anxieties about uniting both parts of himself did not come from his friends online. His fears were connected to "real life" and the material consequences of speaking aloud all the things that he had only committed to the electronic ether.

So when people say offhandedly that spending a lot of time online leads to isolation--or worse, sickness--I can't say that I agree. True community exists online, and the tragedy is not in a life lived there. Genuine loneliness and isolation come from "real life," where all too often crucial parts of ourselves can never be revealed. We are lucky if we can find a place to express those hidden parts, and the Internet is still one of those places.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who reads a lot of strange webzines and can be reached at ([email protected]).

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From the September 7-13, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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