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Overexposure, or, Digital Exhaustion

By rho in Culture
Wed May 01, 2002 at 08:15:10 AM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)

Over the years that I've been wandering about the Internet, I've done my time in a number of virtual communities. Maintaining those connections, however, always proved to be a more daunting task than I was capable of handling; and invariably, I would voluntarily break the link regardless of the disappointment involved.

I have observed a number of other people go through this same lifecycle of discovery, adolescence, maturity, then suicide (or digicide, if I may be so bold). Why does our digital being exhaust itself so quickly?

Recently I witnessed another's suicide from a community I was once a part of (and which brought me more joy than I thought possible). This group was quick to accept and slow to anger: yet he discovered, as I did, that the burden was more than seemingly bearable, and that digicide was preferable to continued participation.

This particular community centered around a game. All in all, a rather interesting game, if often inundated with the lame and stupid. The phenomenon, as I have experienced it, makes little distinction to the adhesive--it seems effective on all types of social glue. I've witnessed it on MUDs, mailing lists, technical forums, the seamier side of humanity, even within non-specific forums such as K5.

The linking factor--or virus vector, perhaps--seems to be the anonymous nature of the Internet. "On the Internet, nobody knows that you're a dog." The inverse being, unfortunately, that nobody thinks to remember that you're another, breathing human. A certain callousness is expected (and even, on occasion, highly lauded). The thickness of your skin then becomes the primary factor behind online success and failure.

Understand that I recognize that I am as culpable as any in this litany of crimes. I could be labeled as the supreme hypocrite, even. Yet, I would maintain that I'm a reasonable and nice guy. Who wrote that awful screed?

In isolation of self, the phenomenon interested me. When another human--with whom I've traded quips and barbs--reaches the same precipice and leaps into the same oblivion, the interest level peaked sharply up.

I posit that the same easy vitriol that leaks out around the edges of our common humanity when disguised behind the shield of anonymity both exhausts our emotional pool (when it is our own discharge) and simultaneously evaporates others'. Burning the candle on both ends, we burn twice as brightly and half as long. It's not just a line from a movie, it's a side effect of our digital existence.

In his book Silicon Snake Oil, Cliff Stoll tells a story contrasting the ancient computer game "Adventure" (not the Atari 2600 version) and a real caving trip. Stoll's ambivalence to the wonders of the computer revolution extends later when he relates the differences between a group of students visiting a marine zoo and another student group watching the first over a digital link. While one group hears that the squid is "squishy", the other group can feel it.

Is our silicon existence not "squishy" enough? Or am I too old to recognize a generation gap as it forms beneath my feet? As I think more about this phenomenon of binary burnout, I begin to wonder about those behind me who will find this stiff-armed alienation perfectly normal. Will it be a net positive or negative to our shared culture?

As onward I lead my "Life Over 10BaseT", this question will likely grow in importance to myself and our culture in general. Perhaps a technological solution exists--maybe an icon of decreasing fire next to posts as a person's tolerance for unfocussed anger wanes; Burnout Karma. Or perhaps we will flit from community to community, as I have done, the exhaustion factor determining when your viable contributions are exhausted.

The friend who initiated this writing said, "living through cyber space isn't living". Perhaps that, above all, is the key. As oft stated by the CdC, "Save yourself! Go outside! Do something!". Words to live by, or in spite of?


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What's your average lifespan in an online community?
o Measured in weeks 2%
o Measured in months 32%
o Measured in years 45%
o I've been on Usenet since it used UUCP-over-carrier-pidgeons, you young pup 18%

Votes: 79
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o game
o the seamier side of humanity
o I could be labeled as the supreme hypocrite, even
o movie
o Silicon Snake Oil
o CdC
o Also by rho

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Overexposure, or, Digital Exhaustion | 37 comments (26 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
Great piece. (4.00 / 1) (#1)
by citizen on Tue Apr 30, 2002 at 10:27:10 PM EST

I hear exactly where you are coming from.  I used to play MUDs heavily.  It took me a while that they simply burnt me out if I played too much.

I'm not too fond of 'sayings' but "everything in moderation" is actually a good adage to live by.

I guess I understand. (5.00 / 7) (#7)
by porkchop_d_clown on Tue Apr 30, 2002 at 11:50:48 PM EST

Once upon a time I was active in alt.folklore.urban. Burned out of that. I was huge into online games when that meant Genie and Q-Link. Burned out of that. I was really active on hotwired back when that was an actual site with actual forums. Burned out of that - bailed way before they shut down. Slashdotted for awhile, dork around the edges of a couple of other sites but this is the only one I really hang out at. I suppose that, eventually, I'll get tired of thurler and streetlawyer and then I'll move on.

But, so what? That's the theme of the "digital world". High speed change. People always seem to make this assumption that being online is stealing their life away. That's not how it works.

Look at me. It's not like I would have been Joe Stud Muffin if only I had spent less time online. I do have a life. Wife, two kids, two cats, two cars. Job. Hobbies that I dork with but don't really work at. Charity work. The only thing being online has done to me is steal from my book reading time.

The point I'm making is online feels different because it's new - but being online isn't something you do instead of life - it's part of life. do you get tired of the same old online communities? People get tired and move on in real life, too. My dad founded a club for hot-rodders. Stuck with it for a few years, got tired of the BS and bailed. Last time I checked, the club was still going strong. How is that different from the life-cycle of the common everquest player?

Uhhh.... Where did I drop that clue?
I know I had one just a minute ago!

Stupid computer games (3.33 / 3) (#10)
by DeadBaby on Wed May 01, 2002 at 12:17:17 AM EST

People just get bored sitting in front of a computer. Being addicted to the internet is really only slightly better than watching TV 8 hours a day. It's more interactive but less rewarding... the majority of the conversations we have with our friends are pretty stupid, we enjoy being with them for less tangable reasons.

The online world is shallow.
"Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us." - Carl Sagan

Overblown (4.50 / 4) (#11)
by jasonab on Wed May 01, 2002 at 12:57:13 AM EST

I think your characterization as "digicide" is a little overdone. People enter and leave groups all the time, but no one ever says "Bob never comes by anymore; must have killed himself."

I agree that people tend burn out of online communities more quickly, mostly because the ties forged are not as binding as meeting people in real life. I don't think there's any real comparison to suicide, though.

America is a great country. One of the freest in the world. -- greenrd

Animosity makes it more (3.00 / 2) (#17)
by organism on Wed May 01, 2002 at 06:15:30 AM EST

If a person communicates in a forum under a false name (as most of us do), when they leave that forum, they change their identity. In the 'real world', this is akin to faking your own death. You can't be traced, and noone can ever talk to you, so you may as well be dead.

Leaving a forum in the manner described can leave people you have come to know feeling as if they've lost a friend. In this way it is rather like suicide.

[ Parent ]

There's a better equivalent (5.00 / 4) (#19)
by gauntlet on Wed May 01, 2002 at 09:52:53 AM EST

These people aren't committing digital suicide, because suicide has implications for the remaining people beside the idea that you are no longer there. On the contrary, suicide implies that you no longer exist.

I have abandoned friends in high school, IRC channels that I frequented for years, work associates, but none of them believes I have ceased to exist. That would be different for them than to merely believe that I am no longer present among them.

This suicide idea comes from the view that the digital life is seperate from the real life, and that it can somehow die, without the real life dying. The view collapses miserably as soon as you realize that if you die in the real world, you're digital self also ceases to exist.

The digital world is not a seperate world, it is merely a seperate medium through which to interact with the world. You have to believe that the real world is still layered behind it, or you start to act inappropriately, fearing no real consequence.

Into Canadian Politics?
[ Parent ]

I don't know... (none / 0) (#29)
by Count Zero on Wed May 01, 2002 at 08:04:26 PM EST

The view collapses miserably as soon as you realize that if you die in the real world, you're digital self also ceases to exist.

Actually, I've ran into digital personas on various formus that I think could easily be replicated by a perl script and MySQL. :-)

[ Parent ]
Change their identity? (none / 0) (#32)
by Bnonn on Thu May 02, 2002 at 04:38:49 AM EST

    If a person communicates in a forum under a false name (as most of us do), when they leave that forum, they change their identity.
While people do sometimes "change their identity" by finding a new nick, that's about as uncommon for long-time net users as someone changing their name whenever they leave some social circle or club. Look me up on Slashdot, where I go far less than I used to. Ask Ryan or dizzyg or Jade on irc.shadowfire.org#zagamers--where I used to have the highest word-count stats, be an op and now never go into--who Bnonn is and they'll remember me.

Basically, when you're first getting into the online scene you tend to use a fair number of dumb nicks, and change them reasonably frequently. Once you get the hang of everything you choose a nick you like, or stick with a goofy one because you're fond of it. It's unusual to change one's nick constantly. And not a lot of people use random nicks. In fact, I'd feel like I'd lost something quite impotant if I were forced to change my nick for some reason.

[ Parent ]

my life online (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by zephc on Wed May 01, 2002 at 04:38:56 AM EST

yeah I spent a few months in #vmac on efnet, and I still keep in contact (via AIM) with guys from there... it's kind of like keeping up with old high school or college buddies.  I still browse and occationally post to slashdot, and here too obviously.  I used to read a plethora of online comix, but those grew tiresome, so I gave up.  Like the author said, one's ties with various 'communities' online will grow and break and morph in various ways.  It's another world, but the same human rules apply (even if it is at 'internet speed')

Digital homicide (4.80 / 5) (#18)
by mlapanadras on Wed May 01, 2002 at 07:33:07 AM EST

It shouldn't always be a suicide mood that pushes us to leave the online community, rather the opposite. The friends become too annoying to let them waste our precious time. It is more like that horrible Erfurt story.

The decision to leave the community where you have spent months or even years requires certain determination. This is not a determination of a victim. You are playing a virtual butcher eliminating those online characters from you mind.

hmmm... (none / 0) (#20)
by Shren on Wed May 01, 2002 at 10:28:19 AM EST

Reading this article makes me think of the science fiction story, Border Guards. I guess they both deal with the ends of various things.

Any more information on that? (none / 0) (#25)
by whojgalt on Wed May 01, 2002 at 03:24:50 PM EST

For some reason, just your very brief description combined with this article makes me want to read that story. Who wrote it? Where can I find it?

If you can't see it from the car, it's not really scenery.
Any code more than six months old was written by an idiot.
[ Parent ]

its by greg egan (none / 0) (#27)
by sayke on Wed May 01, 2002 at 04:33:53 PM EST

it can be found here.

sayke, v2.3.1 /* i am the middle finger of the invisible hand */
[ Parent ]

Thanks n/t (none / 0) (#30)
by whojgalt on Wed May 01, 2002 at 08:07:12 PM EST

If you can't see it from the car, it's not really scenery.
Any code more than six months old was written by an idiot.
[ Parent ]

Peaks and valleys (none / 0) (#21)
by Cro Magnon on Wed May 01, 2002 at 11:37:48 AM EST

In one online community I belong to, I used to be quite active. Over time my activity has diminished. Eventually, I'll probably get more active there, depending on my mood and on other activities in and out of cyberspace.
Information wants to be beer.
A personal experience with digital burn-out (4.50 / 2) (#22)
by limelight on Wed May 01, 2002 at 11:52:47 AM EST

I've spent about four years active on #callahans (Undernet), and about two months ago I decided to up and leave because the signal/noise ratio was getting too low. Too many bozos, too much inanity, and too many of the people who made it cool in the first place getting caught up in their own affairs in the Big Blue Room and leaving. After a while, I decided that keeping current in #callahans was too much like work, and it was time to look somewhere else. I expect I'll stick my head back in in about six months, and I expect that I'll see even more unfamiliar (and perhaps unpleasant) faces (so to speak) and even fewer of my old friends. Entropy catches up with everything, I'm afraid.

Is this different from real life? (4.75 / 4) (#23)
by epepke on Wed May 01, 2002 at 01:05:59 PM EST

I've been part of a lot of communities in real life that I'm not part of any more. In some instances, the communities don't exist. In others, I had a bad experience and have avoided them. I don't think this happens any more frequently in computer-enabled communities. In some instances, when a computer community is linked with a real one, I've even left the real community and stayed in the computer one.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

Normal behavior but in a new environment (4.75 / 4) (#24)
by romanpoet on Wed May 01, 2002 at 01:28:46 PM EST

In the real world, people leave groups voluntary and are sometimes forced to leave groups.  Examples include: jobs, college, moving, whatever.

On the net, the 'forced' moving from group to group is nonexistant.  Thus, you're left with voluntary removal as almost the sole reason for movement between social groups.


Absolutely (4.00 / 3) (#26)
by broken77 on Wed May 01, 2002 at 04:12:40 PM EST

Things I've burnt out on over the years:
  • IRC
  • The original "Web Design List" (started by Lynda and Bill Weinman)
  • Slashdot (although I still read and post occassionally)
  • UT on Ondoher's Bistro
  • E2
I think that maybe the lack of real-world human interaction may what makes us forget and give up so easily. I've not been able to walk away from real human relationships so easy as I have from digital communities.

I'm starting to doubt all this happy propaganda about Islam being a religion of peace. Heck, it's just as bad as Christianity. -- Dphitz

We're selfish bastards (5.00 / 1) (#28)
by bill_mcgonigle on Wed May 01, 2002 at 04:44:25 PM EST

I've been through those cycles myself several times, and it really just comes down to I left when there was nothing more the 'community' could offer me.

I find the same thing happening with television.  I used to watch many shows.  Then I cut out comedies.  Then I cut out dramas.  Now, I'll only watch something educational or super-hero related.  I have more time for novels and papers and magazines that way, which offer me something today.

Maybe we're all just figuring out what we like.  Initially we think a group/technology/show has something to offer us, and maybe it does for a time, but eventually we decide we've gotten all we can out of it, or there wasn't really anything there to begin with, so we move on.

The other people in the group are probably happy to see us go, since we're on a different wavelength at that point.  We're all selfish in our motivations, but it works out for the best for everybody.

One of my experiences with burnout (5.00 / 1) (#31)
by JWhiton on Wed May 01, 2002 at 09:39:22 PM EST

I used to frequent an IRC channel on DALnet for about 3 or 4 years.  I stopped going when I realized how uninhibited and crass I was becoming when I was on IRC.  I found myself saying whatever dumb, half-formed thought that formed in my head.  I didn't like the person I'd become on IRC, so I decided to leave.

It makes me wonder, though.  Was I always like that?  Was it at that moment that I became mature enough to realize what I was doing?

I guess it was a change in me that caused me to leave the community, as opposed to the community itself changing.  Has anyone else had this experience?

Sherry Turkle (4.00 / 1) (#33)
by thebrix on Thu May 02, 2002 at 05:00:09 AM EST

I'm surprised Sherry Turkle hasn't been mentioned so far, but her publications (only one book so far, sadly) are brilliant and, although others have jumped on the bandwagon, she started sociological investigations of online life.

Life on The Screen is a masterpiece and, although 7 years old, hasn't dated at all.

Damnut (none / 0) (#35)
by rho on Thu May 02, 2002 at 04:02:02 PM EST

And I'm looking at Life on the Screen right now from where I sit. It's over *points* there, next to Ender's Game.

It may be because I got so flaming mad when I read it. Sherry's ideas are sound, but her lefty positions were a bit to la-di-da, and I started yelling at the book.

I need to read it again, if only because she's so right in so many parts, never mind that she's so left.
"The thought of two thousand people munching celery at the same time [horrifies] me." --G.B. Shaw
[ Parent ]

I don't understand... (5.00 / 1) (#34)
by Fon2d2 on Thu May 02, 2002 at 11:58:25 AM EST

you're implication that this is a purely digital phenomenon. I've seen plenty of communities and groups of people break apart both online and off. Sometimes its somebody you meet on ICQ or in a game that suddenly dissappear. Sometimes its friends dropping out of college. Maybe somebody joins the army. It's tough enough to keep connections in real life so at least in my experience I tend to focus on the ones that are really important. It's not surprising then that communities connected solely by the internet break apart much more easily. Online friends, although they may be good friends, have a much higher degree of seperation. I certainly wouldn't call it suicide or "digicide". I believe what you are implying by that is a person is sacrificing a part of himself by leaving a community. I don't see it that way. I see it as moving on. Life goes forward and one cannot live in the past. Of course you should always remember your friends and the influences people have had on you, but leaving a community is not suicide.

Sci Fi story.... (5.00 / 1) (#36)
by guinsu on Fri May 03, 2002 at 01:56:53 AM EST

This reminds me of a sci fi story I read. Its a fairly recent short sotry, but I can't remember where I saw it or who wrote it. Basically it is about a utopia (yeah a real one, no seedy underbelly) where everyone lives forever. However, every generation or so individuals are compelled to burn their house and all their possesions and secretly run away to start a new life. I belive the point was the burden of being the same person for more than a life time, meeting people, being stuck in all the social obligations that come with civilization becomes too great after a while and people just had to start over fresh from time to time.

I wonder if a similar phenomenon happens online. Since the internet seems like life on fast forward, or maybe because the communication online cannot go as deep as real shared experiences (this does not say it never can, maybe the holodeck or real time VR will do it), people burn out quicker and get sick of their communities faster.

I realize this is sort of a ramble, I guess it would make more sense if I could remember the story in question and explain it better.

similar to the real world? (5.00 / 1) (#37)
by Mina on Fri May 10, 2002 at 03:36:25 PM EST

I don't think that the 'online world' is actually all the different from the 'real world (tm).  Don't you get tired of the same old places in the real world, and stop going there?

I used to go and read magazines once a week at the public library.  I was a regular to the point of the people there missing me if I didn't show up.  But, I got a little tred of the routine, of the same old places.  I've not been there to read magazines in over a year, and yet, I still go to check books out.  I find that I've done the same things with online communities - I used to be an avid slashdot user, reading and posting and getting first relevant posts, etc. but now, I just go and read the headlines, and any articles that I might be interested in.

Am I alone in thinking that there really is one world?  And that a person can only be himself / herself, no matter what?


Overexposure, or, Digital Exhaustion | 37 comments (26 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
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