For some people, the notion of going five days without the internet is unfathomable. Many who work from home built their jobs around the internet. Others keep in touch with Facebook or bark ideas to acquaintances through Twitter. These sites aren’t just diversions anymore – they have become the new way people keep in touch with one another, entertain themselves and, in some cases, build a reputation.
My approach to the internet could best be described as faking being important. I have an email account, a Facebook profile, a Twitter account, a webzine I write for, a personal blog, several forums I frequent and numerous blogs I comment on regularly. These activities take up so much of my time that you could rightly say I live a decent portion of my life on the web. How could I possibly function if I had to quit cold turkey for five days? I decided to find out.
It seems obvious at first: The long list of websites and blogs I checked regularly was now meaningless. That left me cut off from a group of people to which I had heretofore felt pretty connected. I’ve been diligent about either achieving or prolonging my 15 minutes, depending on what you consider the threshold of fame. For five days, I was cut off from that.
I produce a very tiny commodity that a decent group of people enjoy. That’s what I regularly shoot up on when I post an article, column or blog. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said that a real writer cares more about being read than he does about being paid, and the internet is his ultimate validation. Almost all of us have posted a comment or written a response to something with the sole purpose of being read by someone else. We are all here for that slice of recognition, whatever its size or scale.
What does it mean to be removed from that? There weren’t any physical symptoms, but I did act a bit abnormally. The incessant boredom meant I hit the bottle more than I usually do. I kidnapped my neighbor’s cat and pretended I owned it for a while after I got sick of watching TV. (The cat insisted I be realistic and let her out.) Several of my friends accused me of constantly needing to hear music while I hung out with them – I didn’t even notice this until they said something, but I had been carrying around my portable stereo the whole five days. And every time I woke up, I immediately thought about checking my e-mail. When I finally sifted through my inbox five days letter it was mostly junk mail and someone telling me I got my facts wrong on an article.
Even if you aren’t wired in as I am, the average person has still invested a lot of him or herself into the internet. The average user of Facebook has plenty of photos they have de-tagged. We’ve all posted a comment on a forum that, years from now, will make us cringe. The net effect of all this is that we’ve changed our behavior. Whereas earlier people would avoid the camera or smile pleasantly, they now pose and try to create something memorable. We cultivate reputations in forums through post counts or just by responding to one another. We write reviews of our favorite products or send chain letters with funny jokes attached. We are all beginning to act like tiny celebrities.
For five days, I struggled to figure out what I was supposed to feel without it. I was reminded of a quote by Carl Jung: “Reforms by advances, that is, by new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for.” The internet is changing things and costing us in ways no one can predict. Newspapers are dying, mortgage owners now check their loan rates and all forms of media are trying to cope with digital piracy. More revolutionary is how much of our lives has been transferred to just one means of communication. Yet the truth is that going without the internet for five days is entirely tolerable. There are still plenty of satisfying alternatives. You can just call your friends, peruse a book pulled randomly from the shelf or flick on the TV. The appeal of the internet is not in its necessity but rather the possibilities it generates.
Hell, is anyone really here because they need to be? If Warhol was right about us all getting our 15 minutes of fame eventually, then you realize that recognition comes pretty cheap. Fame is just people paying attention to you, regardless of the merits of what you’re doing. That’s relatively easy to get on the internet, but as five days off the grid proved to me, it’s also pretty easy to get away from.
L.B. Jeffries is a law student from South Carolina who spends too much time playing videogames or screwing around on The Escapist forums instead of studying. He writes reviews, articles and a weekly blog for the videogames section of Popmatters.