Neurosis on the Net

by Paul O'Brien

It goes without saying that every system has its pathology; it is no wonder, then, that the internet is already creating unique problems among its users. The physical ailments it can create are already well-publicized. Carpal tunnel syndrome, eye strain, headaches, and back aches have all been amply addressed by the medical community, and most users become used to these small, but potentially serious hazards. There's a pathology deeper that this, though, because there quite clearly exists new strains of neurosis specifically linked and related to the internet.

This goes beyond obsessive-compulsiveness, as well, which also affects many computer users. I've known people who spend marathon sessions on chatlines, and who are positively frantic when systems crash or are forced to leave their computer. Though this is a potentially serious neurosis, it's not one unique to the internet. Obsession can be over anything, really; one can be compulsive about chewing gum. It seems to be the case, then, that an old neurosis has simply found a new home to breed in.

I would like to give an example of a neurosis more particular to the internet, though, one I call the "IRC/ IRL Misidentity Syndrome." That term is far fancier and stranger than I would like, but let me briefly explain what I mean by it.

One feature of the Internet is the IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. In real time, users can communicate with one another from across the world on channels focusing on various topics. Unfortunately, as many first-time users discover, there are some peculiar qualities to these chat rooms. First of all, regular users become familiar with an abbreviated language that allows them to say more with less letters. Though practical, it's sometimes very difficult to decipher what's being said. Secondly, a popular channel often has many conversations going on at the same time. Like any crowded room, it's often too busy with activity for there to be much sense or organization. Lastly, and maybe most of all, very little is actually being said on these chatlines. You might join a philosophy channel hoping to discuss some interesting topic or other only to find people saying "hi" and "where are you from?" It can be discouraging.

Still, there are enough people who have adapted to IRC's idiosyncrasies, and who truly enjoy it. In IRC lingo, they refer to "IRL," which means "In Real Life," a subtle play-off of their system's own abbreviation. There's obviously a distinction between what happens in IRC and IRL; those men and women having cyber-sex, for example, aren't really doing anything except typing away (at least, we hope that's where their hands are). IRC sex, then, is nothing more than IRL sitting alone behind a computer.

Part of the fun of IRC is being able to talk with so many strangers, but without having to see them or deal with them directly. In this sense, it's very liberating, because many first impressions and social barriers are shaved away the minute you join a channel. Ideally, it seems the power of one's words and ideas would determine how people interact, which is something most of us could only dream of in real life where more superficial factors are taken into consideration.

IRC provides a chance for the shy or the solitary to really open up, even become outgoing and sociable. Indeed, IRC is a very socially driven feature on the internet, maybe more so than any other on-line application. I would hope that it helps many people become comfortable with themselves as a result of this positive interaction; after carrying on pleasant IRC conversations with strangers, maybe someone will feel more confident conversing with others in real life, too. IRC might be many people's chances to come out of their shells.

But for all this promises, you may already suspect what it forebodes. The same anonymity that breaks down shyness also buffers people from the consequences of their words. Just as it's safe to be oneself on the IRC, it's also quite safe to become someone completely unlike your real self, and to even act like your own opposite.

You could see where such an idea would begin, because what fun it would be to be free from your everyday personality for once! The shy could become not only outgoing, but downright daring; those who would rarely find social interest in them in real life could become flirtatious and provocative on the IRC; those who are too afraid to speak their minds could finally flame anyone who came crossed their paths. This social liberation offers freedom to both be oneself and be someone one wants to be, and in turn, it's a freedom that cuts two ways.

For some people, the next logical step in this pretend-identity they've made for themselves is this: they act one way on the IRC and another in IRL that's completely different. Whereas IRC offers a new rush for being this thrilling person, IRL is almost a let- down. The old personality pales next to the fun and excitement of the new one, and the seed of a thought is planted. "If I can enjoy my life on the IRC so much with this personality," they might think, "then why can't I learn to be this way in reality?"

The reasoning is natural, and in some cases it might really help a person. In many cases, though, you can see the pitfalls. Conversation and interaction in real life is very different than some private IRC channel. On IRC, you can flame someone at your leisure without fear of consequence, but in real life, you might find yourself fired, insulted, or even assaulted for the same inflammatory remarks.

Traditional conversation is more restricted than relay chatting, but for many practical reasons: to be respectful to others are to maintain a degree of civility are two of them. The social habits acquired on the IRC may clash violently with this etiquette, and the neurosis is planted. First of all, the distinction between IRC and IRL blurs for many people who have used IRC for extended periods of time. This time and experience creates attitudes and habits that bleed over into real-life interactions as a result. Secondly and consequently, the person someone becomes accustomed to being on the IRC carries over to their real personality. When the distinction blurs in extreme cases, such a person may not even realize they're mistaking their IRC persona for their IRL one.

That's why I call it the "IRC/ IRL Misidentity Syndrome." The resulting problems are purely social, but that's enough to adversely affect someone's well-being a great deal. I can only assume there exists something similar to this among actors who may sometimes lose themselves to their parts. Unfortunately, actors are trained to affect personalities whereas IRC users are usually just ordinary people. I also sense that something similar to this happens to some people who watch a great deal of television or movies. If you watch enough soap operas, for example, there's always that potential that it'll rub off on to your own social life.

It's also confining to limit this phenomenon to the IRC when it can exist --and probably does exist-- with any internet application. Newsgroups and Websites carry the same potential anonymity as the IRC; I just think the fact that IRC takes place in real time makes it more social, and thus more prone to this problem. Flaming is already something every user has become accustomed to, however, and I'm convinced that it's partly a social example of what happens on IRC a lot of times. After all, it's easier to criticize a stranger when they live halfway around the world and don't know who you are.

Beyond observing the problem, it's hard for me to suggest any possible solutions when there are complicated issues of identity to be resolved. For example, maybe someone will argue that this personality shift is really just the true colors of someone coming out thanks to the internet. Nonetheless, I would respond that some personal truths are better left hidden, just for everyone's sake. Though I'm not prudish, I would prefer not to see everyone's true selves come crashing out. Complete freedom may offer a brief thrill, but I'm sure it will only end up limiting ourselves in the long run for practical reasons. Just as we know better than to always tell the truth, so we know better than to always be our true selves.

Someone might also argue, however, that maybe the social habits created on the IRC are indicative of the social future of the internet, and since the internet will probably become more and more dominant in our lives, it's silly to condemn these personality changes. Maybe calling the IRC persona neurotic is being too centered on this traditional sense of "real life," assuming too much that real life is more accurate. As a relativist and subjectivist, I'm sympathetic toward this suggestion; I don't want to assume or presume too much either way. But as a pragmatist, I think you could argue that certain personality traits are potentially destructive no matter what medium they're expressed in. Disrespect is something that usually comes around to hurt someone whether it's in IRL or IRC.

Stepping away from this particular case, it still seems apparent that the internet will be ripe with unique and original neuroses. Since it's such an intellectually, emotionally, and socially charged vehicle, I guess this should be expected. We may soon find new reports and specialized psychologists moving to meet these problems; I wouldn't be surprised. Until then, we should at the very least keep an eye open to our own lives and minds to make sure the internet doesn't make us neurotic, too.... or at least aggravate neuroses we already have IRL.

Let me know what you think... onset of the presentation from clean and clear to eloquent and poetic.

All roads will be designed to pass through those ideas most central to the author's intentions, but the road to them and through them will be that which the reader finds most suitable. Every reading could become a new tour through the same basic locations. Hitting the ideas from so many divergent angles, the reader gains perspective far more quickly and easily than a linear book. The new "angular" document can be so rich with depth and option that it can provide an experience not much less adaptable and responsive that a private dialogue.

And just as a dialogue forges new connections a speaker would never think of by themselves, so will this document be expansive upon itself, creating new summations far greater than its original parts. The internally networking branches of the document will synthesize in undetermined ways to become liberated from the author's personally limited viewpoint. Rather, the work will transcend him or her, becoming the product of both the author as supplier of ideas and the readers themselves as the ideas' assemblers.

This would call for a radically different author, naturally, one whose grasp of the material would have to be as far-reaching as possible to accommodate the diversity of the audience. Style would no longer be defined as one choice among many, but by those authors able to create as many varying and appropriate styles as possible. Those on-line books with less links and smaller scopes would become less read; those that better fulfilled the potential of the medium would consequently interest more readers. The new medium would call for fresh talents able to create intelligent, complex, and diverse material.

Even so, I know I'm being myopic about the potential for something like hypertext. It's a gnawing hunch of mine that something I have not yet envisioned is going to result from hypertext, and sooner than later. Greater still, I know this is just one innovation of many arriving soon at a terminal near you.

It seems clear to me that this is not a fad, nor just the next rung in the ladder of technological advancement. We're turning a corner, right as we speak, and the path is ripe with possibility. With the Web spinning out new sites exponentially, new information conduits looming on the horizon, Congressional actions moving to curb on- line content, and a media finally vocalizing what has been revolutionizing, there are some people that realize that the air we breathe through these circuits is crackling with energy. We can't just understand that this application is practical, but come to realize that it demands a new consciousness of sorts, one as adaptable, swift, and far-reaching as the medium itself. To be connected is not enough; we must be wired.

Just recently --so recently, it feels like the moment before now-- I've felt myself finally plugging in. I feel very far from the cusp of this wave, but for what I've surfed so far, I feel positively energized. Still, I look around me and realize just how many people have no interest in plugging themselves in. I find myself trying to explain the wonder of it all very awkwardly, like one of the newly converted in a religion. I sometimes feel so convinced that this information revolution is a colossal moment in modern culture, that I want friends of mine to be converted too. Still, the irony of it is that it almost has to be experienced first hand to be truly understood. I would probably do no better convincing a computer illiterate of what I consider an information revolution than a Christian would be convincing me that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. It makes me realize I shouldn't preach or assume much in such matters.

So though I could be very wrong --possibly overzealous-- there's something in the wind that makes me believe time will tell us soon enough. If this technology expands as deeply and originally as it looks like it will, we're going to want to be as close to the edge as possible. Profit is surely to be made from this (I can imagine homepage decorators and site-link architects already, if they don't already exist), and even the arts will hopefully reach this new multi-media outlet (that promises to be far greater than television could ever be).

But more than entertainment, profit, and data-retrieval, there is something here that promises to raise our quality of life significantly. I can't help but feel that one day soon, the person who doesn't know how to surf the net will not only be like someone who never learned how to drive a car, but like someone who never learned how to read. It will be an everyday, life-expanding component of our culture and world, and we will want to be adept at it as possible.

For now, though, we're still here, still somewhere in between the past and the future of a revolution whose story is being written right this very moment. The promise is here, I believe, somewhere very close to home and very accessible to any one of us. When the wave crashes, we want to be riding it; for now, the key is just making sure we're plugged in.

Please feel free to write to me...