When I was 13 I opened the door to an alternate universe where I could be anyone I wanted. A professional skater, a 19-year-old named David in Wisconsin, even a cartoon character—I could change my identity with the simple creation of a screen name. I thought of the America Online chat rooms as grounds for a virtual Halloween that I could celebrate every day. I became immersed in this mania. The sounds of a dial tone followed by the buzzes and hisses of a 56K modem became the soothing part of each day after school.
I was ahead of my time. It was 1997, and none of my classmates were familiar with online chatting whenever I tried to bring it up. While my mother forced me to come home immediately after school each day, my classmates would walk to McDonald’s for a 3 p.m. lunch, go over to each other’s houses to play PlayStation, or drink someone’s dad’s beer. My family’s computer became a friend who opened up an entire social dimension to me.
“They’re all missing out,” I assured myself while pecking away on my keyboard. “Some day they’ll see.”
That day came just two years later. Members of my circle of friends were signing on America Online Instant Messenger (AIM) left and right. PandaPoo54, BooGeR625, phlywitegy, TAN6ENT—they all assumed their identities. We started with meaningless small talk and sending each other our favorite hip-hop MP3s. And then our interactions evolved. We began organizing our social gatherings over AIM. Soon, we were having regular conversations over AIM. My phone stopped ringing; it was replaced with the familiar chime of an instant message.
Over the past eight years I’ve watched the online social revolution proliferate. The foundations of some of my friendships were rooted in online conversations. It reached the point where some of my romantic relationships sprouted from an instant message or e-mail; sometimes they ended the same way.
Recently my ex-girlfriend and I got in a fight over e-mail, which was resolved in a face-to-face talk. I reached two realizations from that incident. First, a great deal of miscommunication arises from electronic communication, since all you’re working with are words; so much of the human element—body language, gesticulations, inflections—is filtered out. Second, I realized I missed so dearly the days when people in my generation would ring each other’s door bells or call each other just to talk.
“This Internet thing isn’t doing it for me anymore,” I wrote in an IM last night to a friend. “It’s no fun.”
Out of frustration, I’ve decided to conduct a social experiment on myself. For two entire weeks I’m committing to staying off online chat—AIM, GChat, online forums, you name it. I’ll check with the progress of weaning myself off online chatting. With the exception of the days I’ve spent away from a computer on vacations, I’ve signed on AIM every day for the past 10 years, so this won’t be easy. The day this piece is published, I’m signing off.
Wish me luck. It’s going to be a long, but hopefully fulfilling, two weeks.