I never thought I had an addictive personality until the time I stayed up all night watching an online spat.
The moment of truth came during a slow period in the assault of words I was watching unfold on my browser. I had refreshed the screen several times; there were no new responses — perfect time for a bathroom break! I rose from my chair, rubbing my numb rear end and trying to straighten my resistant spine, shaped like a question mark from hours of hunching over a keyboard. As I tuned into the real world around me, I noticed several things that didn’t seem right. First of all, were those birds I heard chirping? I could have sworn I heard crickets just a few minutes ago. And wait a second — why was “Little Bear” on? I was just listening to “Nick at Nite” — and — wait a second —
Oh. The sun was up.
I discovered online parenting communities when I was pregnant with my first child, and I was amazed that there was this whole other world out there, made up of moms like myself, where I could have an instant connection with adults no matter what time of day or night. I made all the classic newbie mistakes — insisting on referring to the discussions taking place on message boards as “chatting” and the forums as “rooms,” forgetting to change the subject line in my replies, forgetting to add “NT” to indicate that there was no text inside my posts. But soon my naiveté wore off, and I was a seasoned cyber-mama, navigating from board to board with ease and confidence. I often held three or four (or more) simultaneous conversations, the message windows popping up on my screen one after the other in perfect order. Click, type-type-type, enter, next window. Click, type-type-type, enter. Repeat. I knew just when to say “LOL” (this stands for “laughing out loud.” Word to the wise: when people type LOL, they usually aren’t), or when a more enthusiastic “ROFL” (“rolling on the floor laughing”) was called for. I joined communities and e-mail lists left and right. I corresponded with a number of women (some of whom I didn’t even like, but I’d talk to them anyway) via e-mail, ICQ, or instant messenger. I knew the scoop. I parlayed the lingo like a pro.
I was hooked.
What unique power did the Internet hold, that kept me coming back for more? As an often-isolated housewife/stay-at-home-mother, was I searching for friendship? No — I neglected plenty of perfectly good real-life friendships during that period of time. Was I looking for validation of my parenting choices, information on issues that mattered to me, friendly chatter, something to pass the, yes, sometimes boring hours of nursing and diaper changes? Well, to a large extent, yes. But there was something else — something that kept me plugged in, turned on, tuned-in. That something was drama.
Talk about the drama! It was better than a soap opera at times, and best yet, they were all (well, most of them, at least) REAL people. Can you believe it? Susie faked a pregnancy AND a miscarriage! Oh, that’s not the worst! Mitzi said she never got that Gap jumper in the mail from Karen, and refused to pay for it, but then a few weeks later, Bobbi Jo, who goes to the same playgroup as Mitzi, saw Mitzi’s baby wearing that very same denim Gap jumper! Heather believes in breastfeeding, but Kelly thinks she’s being judgmental. Sally won’t consider daycare for her brood, so Danielle thinks she’s judging daycare. Melissa IS using daycare, and rumors fly around that she’s dumping her kids so that she can get a deck built onto her house this summer. My seventh-grade clique had nothing on us, this group of grown women.
I’m not sure what it is about a group of mothers getting together online that can bring out the worst in us. Do sleep deprivation and raging hormones, when combined with the volatile medium of cyber-relationships, cause women to become completely different people than they are in real life? Does the semi-anonymity of typing a response — the ability to hide behind a user name, profile, and e-mail address; the ability to walk away from a conflict, to never open that thread again, to never return to a site — give us a feeling of power that overrides our inner censor? Or do we simply revel in the ability to become somebody we may not be, to lose ourselves in another world, to participate in drama when so much of our real life is full of the mundane duties of being a responsible adult?
There are those women who are able to participate in online communities to a healthy degree. I’ve seen them — they post when they feel they can be helpful or have something to learn, to give a congratulations or a cyber hug, to share a piece of good news — and when the drama begins, they walk away, to re-emerge later when things have calmed down again. It doesn’t get under their skin. I’m not one of them. I get sucked in. I’m not alone. And when a web community loses its luster, what should moms like me do? Do we find a new hot spot? Do we channel our energy into a new online “home”, hoping this one will fill the void?
Or do we turn the computer off, walk away, and look for a new way to spend our time?
What would happen if we didn’t have this little box of immediate adult interaction at our beck and call 24 hours a day? What if we needed to find a recipe at two a.m.? What if we were bored late at night with nothing to do?
Well, the truth is, I’ve never yet needed a recipe (or any other vital piece of information) at two a.m., and as far as boredom, I’ve found those old standbys — books, pen and paper, solitaire, human interaction, even television — to work great in a pinch. And when I’m bored or tired, I just stop. The playing cards do not jump up and say, “Wait! Don’t go to bed yet! I still want to play!” Little screens do not pop up out of my book, saying “Hey! I was just about to go to bed, but then I saw that you were still up!” The television doesn’t interact with me. If I turn the channel, it won’t get mad because I ignored its programming. And when I turn it back on in the morning, the programming will be the same whether I gave my input or not.
So I guess the answer is, if I didn’t have the Internet, I’d do what I did before — find something else to do with my time. Maybe get outside a little more often. Maybe stop neglecting old hobbies and nurture some real-life relationships. Maybe remember what it’s like to belong to a neighborhood where, flaws and differing views and all, people are there to share conversation over a cup of coffee or lend a pair of hedge trimmers when you have lost your own.
It’s a tempting thing, this constant connection to cybercommunities, particularly those where everybody is linked by motherhood, political views, or some other factor that makes the ready-made friendships seem particularly appealing. The problem is, the pseudo-intimacy of the online setting gives us a false sense of community that is as ethereal as bandwidth. And as families become more and more disconnected — as people spend more time at work or tethered to people they’d rather not communicate with by cell phones and beepers, as mothers at home become more isolated, as mothers at work become more overworked because information moves at an increasingly rapid pace — I have to wonder if in the end, the bad doesn’t outweigh the good. When do we say, “Enough!”?
Sooner or later, I’ll kick my ‘net habit. I’m cutting down, little by little, e-mail list by e-mail list. I’m reading more to my kids; reading more to myself. I’m taking up hobbies like embroidery, crocheting — those forgotten home arts that are deliciously unnecessary in the year 2004. I’m trying to keep a cleaner house. I’m more efficient at work. My home is cleaner. I bake more. And when I need to laugh? I visit a friend, or sip a beer with a neighbor. When I need a touch of drama? I watch “The Newlyweds.”
Community is out there, right in my own backyard. Opinionated women, mothers who would make great friends, are out there; I just have to put forth more physical effort than hitting an “on” button. I’m tired of dreaming of a utopia where all the women think like me, parent like me, and have similar political views as me. It doesn’t exist, not even in the online world. It’s not real. I’m ready for a touch of reality. And after years of trying to escape my humdrum small-town mother-of-two existence through a series of digital utopias gone awry, I think I’m finally ready to take the advice of grandmothers everywhere. I’m ready, that is, to bloom where I’m planted.