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Monday, March 14, 2005

WSJ.com - Real Time : News Addiction ?

WSJ.com - Real Time

Blather about net addictions ... an advertiser's dream ?

Fears about Internet addiction have been around as long as there's been a consumer Internet to be addicted to. It seems like every few months brings a new warning on the subject -- the latest that caught our eye was a Slashdotted University of Iowa study looking at players of massively multiplayer online role-playing games -- those are MMORPGS, in unpronounceable geekspeak.

The study found 10% to 15% of players of such games could be considered addicted, which sounds reassuringly low to everyone except the makers of games like EverQuest and Star Wars: Galaxies. What struck us was that MMORPGS are just the latest segment of online life to spark Net-addiction fears, joining worries about porn, gambling, eBay and other pursuits that lend themselves to a certain obsessive-compulsive repetition. Heck, there's probably some poor soul haunting the Microsoft boards because he's addicted to Windows security fixes.

(For a much-cited overview of various Net addictions, try this from the Center for Online Addiction, along with their Internet Addiction Test. Taking silly quizzes online is, of course, an addiction in itself.)

To be clear: We're not making light of addiction, online or otherwise. And it's not enough to blithely note that porn and gambling were around long before the Net. Yes, these online vices (or pursuits, if you prefer) are old wine in new bottles, but those new bottles are considerably different: The Net simultaneously allows near-instant access, and makes it much easier to hide the problem from friends, family and co-workers. Adding the Net to the mix seems a recipe for making a problem worse and relapses more likely. Try sneaking out to certain precincts of Atlantic City or random public auctions for four hours a night and see how long it takes for someone close to you to set up an intervention. Pursue these things online, and they may never know.

This ability to hide in plain sight is one reason some forms of Net addiction continue to worry us. As a society, we (OK, we should really say "everybody over 25") are still figuring out how the Net fits in with the rhythms of daily life. The Net is weirdly dislocating -- as many an unhappy employer or distraught parent can tell you, it lets people be not at work while at work, or not at home while at home.

But what about people who aren't addicted to online sex or gambling? What about people who seem to be addicted to the online world in general? That's where it gets tricky.

We suspect a lot of these people are addicted to information itself -- they've become keenly aware that oceans of information are constantly washing across the Net and love the fact that they can zero in on the information that concerns them and get updates whenever they choose to. At some point, though, they took this a bit too far: Now they're constantly beset by the nagging feeling that they're missing something, even though they checked all their online information outposts five minutes ago -- and their RSS feeds are humming away. To find these people, all your columnists have to do is look in the mirror: Tim is notorious for under-the-table Blackberrying even when there's beer to be drunk, and Jace often misses a sensible bedtime because he's irritably clicking between Web sites run by folks who've probably gone to sleep.

But if this is addiction, a lot of people are trying to addict you, too -- and no one's calling them pornographers. More and more devices are dedicated to keeping you connected by shooting your e-mail to your PDA or your cellphone. "One click away" is no longer close enough for Web sites that now offer RSS feeds or little taskbar icons that alert you when something's changed.

There's no doubt one can become addicted to connectedness -- only you and those dear to you can decide if you've crossed a line somewhere. But before identifying a problem, it's wise to consider how that information junkie would be spending the time lost chasing connectedness. If freed from his addiction, your resident info-junkie might write the Great American Novel, clean out the garage or learn to knit. But he might not: Jace quit home Internet use for a while a few years back, and mostly watched more TV. Is that preferable to gambling away one's savings or obsessively playing Orbitz four-hole mini-golf? Definitely. Is it better than pointless Net surfing? We're not so sure.

When does the pursuit of connectedness become a problem? Got any tales of Net compulsion or thoughts on how to balance online life with "real" life? Write to us at realtime@wsj.com. If you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published, please make that clear.

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