The consequences of turning on and tuning out in the Internet age

Pj Perez

"Man, I hope there wasn't some drama that made you delete your LJ."

That was the e-mail I received from my friend Irish a few minutes after I flipped off the switch on my LiveJournal account.

An hour later, I received a phone call from a friend in Los Angeles:

"I saw you deleted your LiveJournal. I hope everything is okay."

A half-hour later, I moved on to delete my MySpace account. There was a message waiting from my sister-in-law:

"No more LiveJournal?"

In this age of cellular phones, Sidekicks, Blackberrys, notebook computers and rampant wireless Internet access, our society appears—on the surface—to be more connected than ever. We send and receive text messages, e-mails, photos, music and videos constantly, often with little thought.

Yet I can't help but feel that all of this interconnectivity is something of a front, a digital facade we've created to disguise the lack of human connection that most of us experience on a daily basis. Weekly columnist Chuck Twardy pointed out to me a common example of this phenomenon: He observed two students at UNLV's campus walking together, but carrying on separate conversations on their respective cell phones.

One might concede that the Internet entered a new evolutionary—or devolutionary—step with the proliferation of MySpace and other "social networking" sites such as Friendster and Tribe.net. The creation of an online identity has been part of the reality of the Internet age from the start, beginning with online bulletin board systems and text-based chat rooms. But in the MySpace era, you can truly be whoever you envision yourself as—a hottie with friends in the thousands, living vicariously through your username of the week, posting endless bulletins chock-full of semi-interesting facts inferred via surveys.

After suffering perplexing social withdrawl following my divorce, I found myself using —abusing, even—those digital connections to create or fabricate some semblance of interpersonal intimacy. I completed very little work, distracted by constantly updating my growing community of "friends" with my latest mental condition or a biographical survey. After weeks of staying up all hours of the night on instant-messaging conversations, trolling MySpace for new messages or friend requests and turning my LiveJournal-hosted blog from a Vegas-centric watchdog column into a vomitorium for my personal drama, I decided I had enough.

The LiveJournal cancellation was a simple button-push (as was deleting my Friendster account), but much like being in the mob or a street gang, MySpace didn't want to let me go. I attempted to cancel my account using their simple instructions four times. The final stage of the process involves following a link that is sent in a confirmation e-mail. Every time I clicked on this link, a "technical error" occurred. I sent a message to MySpace to report this, and to reinforce the notion that I wanted to cancel my account. The reply I received told me to do the same thing I had already done four times previous. This same e-mail contained some esoteric—and questionable —instructions for cancellation if I forgot my password, requiring the transmission of a "salute":

"To send a salute, please do the following:

"Create a handwritten sign that says MySpace.com and your friend ID. Your friend ID is the number between ID=and &mytoken in your profile's URL.

"Get an image, or digital picture of yourself with this handwritten sign.

"This image is a salute. Next, reply to this e-mail with the salute as an e-mail attachment, or as an e-mail link to where it is uploaded."

I sent back an e-mail to the MySpace folk with my password enclosed, demanding that someone cancel my account pronto.

After five days, MySpace still wouldn't let me go. Neither would my friends. One posted this plea:

"You can't leave MySpace ... what happens if I lose your number again???"

Finally, after almost a week of no response to my multiple inquiries, I received an e-mail confirmation that my MySpace account was scheduled for deactivation. I was ecstatic. Friends and colleagues, however, not notified of my impending disappearance from MySpace, were concerned. I received e-mails asking me what happened, where I was. I ran into people at events, and they were relieved to see me.

I'm not sure what it says about the direction our society is taking when one's presence on or off the Internet has such an impact on his or her social interactions. I'm no Luddite, but I am suspicious of the fragility of relationships completely maintained without eye contact, body language or even the comforting frequencies of the human voice.

Though I restarted my blog after cutting out the proverbial fat, my days of social networking sites are over. The world can have MySpace. It can have Friendster. I'll take the few good friends I can see, touch, smell and feel over the digital dozens any day.

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