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The Pros And Cons Of Our Internet Addiction

The Pros And Cons Of Our Internet Addiction

Friday, December 12th, 2008

The other day, on a lark, I created a Facebook group called “I Refuse To Join Pointless Facebook Groups,” and invited several hundred of my online friends to join. As of this writing, about three dozen have joined this pointless group, some perhaps aware of the irony, some not.

Almost all Facebook groups are pointless. The one that struck me the most is “I Turn My Pillow Over At Night To Get The Cold Side,” a group that had 142 members at the point when I politely declined (there are at least three competing groups with similar pillow themes).

Some online groups serve the purported purpose of allowing people to exchange ideas, career opportunities or rally support for serious causes like cancer research. There are also active political groups on Facebook, such as one that surely helped Barack Obama win. But most have no utility beyond the initial statement of the sign-up.

Whether or not Facebook in general has a level of utility commensurate with the amount of time people, myself included, spend on it is open to debate. While it can serve to expand both business and social contacts and reconnect with lost friends or even family, it’s a proven time waster. How are our lives improved by knowing that Shaindy is going shopping, Karen took her kids to the doctor or Fred is annoyed by the Jets’ defensive line?

The quick answer is that we’re looking for distraction from our stressful lives and prefer to socialize, or what passes for it online, rather than focus on our work or home life when the burdens are too heavy. One of the most common Facebook status updates is some variation of “[NAME} is putting off his responsibilties and wasting time on Facebook,” which is both complaint and jubilation rolled into one.

But the temptation can be irresistable. What if life enabled you to have hundreds of acquaintances lined up outside your home – some you adore, some you despise, some you have no feelings about one way or the other – and were able to tactfully decide which of them to let in? Then you could have a simultaneous conversation with all of that select group simultaneously, in short, punchy sentences, and even exchange old and new photos. Facebook creates that effect. But is it helping or harming our social skills?

It’s a fact of modern life that we are simultaneously increasing the quantity of communication in our lives while decreasing the quality, pushing the people around us further away from our real selves. E-mails and text messages, or online chats far outpace personal or phone conversations. When people do call, we screen them through answering machines or Caller ID. Parents are even texting their children to come to the dinner table, where the meal might be one of the last remaining bastions of face to face, hopefully quality conversation. What toll this will take on the next generation’s ability to hold in-person conferences, speak before audiences or develop meaningful social contacts remains to be seen.

But it’s not all bad. The Internet not only expands our reach and keeps us connected with people who would otherwise fall out of our lives, but it also helps us problem-solve and even meet new people. I’m not only talking about JDate or Facebook, but the hundreds of proliferating e-mail listservs.

In an earlier post I wrote about how a “shuls list” in my adopted small town helped me not only find the local services and amenities we needed but to learn the names of active people in the community, the activities of the local shuls and even tap into the exchange of free stuff in the community, which we now use both to give and to receive.

Jacob Richman, a Jerusalem-based Internet consultant, regularly compiles these shul lists, as well as multitudes of other resources and liststhem on his Web site, Before each Jewish holiday he typically sends out an e-mail with interesting links, such as “50 Passover humor files.”

”It’s my Jewish way of helping people,” says Richman in an e-mail to me. “During the summer and Chanukah I also post pictures of olim to encourage aliyah.”

Every Jewish organization or major yeshiva has a Web site, and Chabad Lubavitch is perhaps the only chasidic movement that harnesses the Web to further its cause, and made good use of it in recent weeks to raise both money and mitzvot on behalf of the slain emissaries in Mumbai.

While in general, the Internet and its related forms of communication may serve to water down the quality of our interaction, it’s good to know that in our Jewish community, it has it’s utility in making a far-flung, largely exiled people with many goals in common feel like they’re living next door to each other.

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