Written: December 1998
Revised: September 2001
Originally written and submitted as a feature story for slashdot.org but they chose not to use it. :)
Do you remember that survey that came out a couple of months ago, that said people using the internet were getting more depressed? I couldn't figure it out at the time. I know people are making lots of personal connections online. Average normal people using the net will strike up email conversations or head for the live chat. Maybe barren online shopping malls might make people depressed, but no more or less than a real one. And walking into net cafes I see that not only are they packed out, but most people are using Hotmail, i.e. they're talking direct to other people rather than passively surfing.
So why are people getting depressed online when it's such a good community builder, and we humans, being social animals, should be feeling better for it?
What about if it's the contrast? Between our normal lives and our online ones. People feel free to say all kinds of personal things on mailing lists with huge memberships, and even point out that they wish they had such friends in real life. So what if the intimate communities we form online are making us notice how barren our cities are in comparison?
Our cities don't seem to be designed around community. Most of my city seems to be designed around money changing hands. Enourmous infrastructure for people to go to work and get paid 5 days a week. Shops. Want to meet someone? Go to the movies or hang out at a cafe. There's little room for casual interactions without a ticking price tag above your head. You can't leave your door open and chat with your neighbours, it's not safe (channel 10 news said so). I reckon modern cities like mine (Sydney) are pretty hostile to community.
Country towns might be more open, but there can be huge social stigmas if "you're not from round here", and huge unemployment means young people are killing themselves off (deliberately or otherwise).
Old media does nothing to notice all of this. I reckon this is because community building is in conflict with our media's mission to to sell us things (entertainment is a low second priority, and often what we are being sold). A great way to sell people things is to make them feel unsafe, then offer them something that they can buy to feel safer again. Fear uncertainty and doubt sells. It could be anything, like antibacterial sponges solving a problem that doesn't exist. Another great way to sell more stuff is to undermine people's trust in each other so they have to buy their own widget instead of sharing. I'm not saying this is some huge conspiracy, things just tend to fall out this way.
So we ignored the barren communities of our cities until the internet came along and threw it into huge contrast. And that's why we get depressed. Not for what we have online, which is exciting and passsionate and alive, but for what might have been happening outside if our cities weren't so harsh in underestimating people.
In fact I now see the internet as a community crutch. It's a tool that's helping us to rediscover how social networks are part of what it means to be human. And often groups that form online lead to face to face meetings, and result in healthy strong connections between people, bringing community back to Western civilisation.
Our sense of social trust has been hobbled by mass-market culture. The net lets us learn how to walk openly among humans again.
What does this have to do with slashdot? Well geeks are often seen as antisocial. Which of course is totally wrong. I mean slashdot is one of the busiest social centres online.
It's just that those doing the perceiving (non-geeks) don't speak the language: computers. Now since the internet was built by geeks, not marketing, not the military, but geeks, it's a natural for geek socialising. Who better to build an online world that fosters community than geeks who talk best in the language of computers? And who can we rely on to let community internet spaces die on the vine? Microsoft and AOL of course.
So both the internet and Linux are havens and strongholds for the concept of people sharing, yakking, arguing, and sometimes even working together. In relationships not governed by money. One day these strange and optimistic concepts might even leak back into the real world.