An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

Confession #53: An Open Letter to a Quitter

In response to James Sturm’s I’m Quitting the Internet, I just dropped the following letter in the mailbox.

April 12, 2010

James Sturm
The Center for Cartoon Studies
P.O. Box 125
White River Junction, VT 05001

Mr. Sturm,

I am sending you this message via post as I have recently learned that after feeling overwhelmed by a growing addiction to the internet – obsessive vanity tracking, emailing, Googling, YouTubing, no time for reading, an unnatural and unwarranted sense of urgency, your one good eye going bad, etc – you have embarked on a self-imposed, four month hiatus from all things internet. I came across your writing on the topic via a tweet that led me to a blog post that eventually pointed me to your article on quitting the internet in “Slate Magazine” — only available, as it were, online. (Forgive the use of “as it were” in my last sentence. I assume people used phrases like that back when letters were still sent). In your article, you wrote:

Over the last several years, the Internet has evolved from being a distraction to something that feels more sinister. Even when I am away from the computer I am aware that I AM AWAY FROM MY COMPUTER and am scheming about how to GET BACK ON THE COMPUTER. I’ve tried various strategies to limit my time online: leaving my laptop at my studio when I go home, leaving it at home when I go to my studio, a Saturday moratorium on usage. But nothing has worked for long. More and more hours of my life evaporate in front of YouTube. Supposedly addiction isn’t a moral failing, but it feels as if it is … About a month ago, I started seriously thinking about going offline for an extended period of time. I weighed the pros and cons, and the pros came out on top.

Why didn’t I think of that?

That was my first reaction to your bold move. After all, this is my fifty-third confession about being a sufferer of a very similar addiction. I’ve written about obsessive stat tracking, ignoring my kids, sacrificing my brain, and a general bleary-eyed descent into this widening gulf of realtime, digital quicksand. Yet, I am still here, sharing my thoughts via the very same medium beneath which a decade of my potential has been crushed.

But you’re free. At least for four months. You’re out there chewing on a piece of straw wandering what I imagine to be the tree-lined paths of White River Junction, stopping occasionally to smell a fresh Dandelion (not yet boxed by proflowers.com), or to push your kids in a makeshift tree-swing, or to take a break from reading Whitman aloud to skip some rocks across a still pond.

Everyone I’ve talked to seems supportive of your decision. But none of them hinted that they’d do the same. One fellow web entrepreneur was especially enthusiastic about the idea of disconnecting for a few months (or even a few minutes) and asked me to repeat the name of the site where your article appeared before firing up his Blackberry and sending a related bulk email to his colleagues. We were at a wedding reception at the time.

And then it hit me. You say you’re quitting the internet. But maybe it runs deeper than that and you’re just a quitter.

You’ve taken off across the terrestrial outback with nothing but your offline experiences of self, family, friends, work and a wifi-disabled laptop. But what about the rest of the poor suckers still online – many of whom are following along with you via the very channels you’ve turned off (I won’t tell you how many, because you’d be back checking your stats in no time). Who will lead them now?

At the time of this correspondence, thirty-nine members of the tribe you so selfishly abandoned have left comments on the bottom of your article on Slate. Imagine the desperation of leaving online messages for a guy who just said he’s going offline. This is the equivalent of responding to an obituary with some follow-up questions for its subject.

These people are sick, and you’re gone. You think your healthy transition to a normal, pre-internet existence will provide them with some valuable lessons. Hogwash. They need to be scared straight. They need to be taken into the solitary confinement wing of a maximum security prison and be forced to listen to the aggressive saliva-soaked admonitions of a dude who raced down the same path ahead of them and ended up at rock bottom. Ain’t no Twitter in the joint, punk. (I don’t actually know whether they allow Twitter in prisons but what difference does it make — you can’t Google it anyway.)

I’m that rock bottom dude. And your willingness to go offline isn’t going to make me feel bad about that anymore. I’ve always been willing to put out the extra effort to maintain my early-adopting addiction. More than a decade ago, my wife bought me a huge rear-projection television for our first apartment’s very narrow living room. I was enveloped by its glow and the first forty-five minutes of viewing was exhilarating. But then I realized that being so close to a giant rear-projection television was giving me horrible headaches and projectile motion sickness.

If that were you, I have no doubt you would’ve run back to the store and traded your TV in for a smaller, less immersive model. I sucked it up, went to the corner pharmacy, and scored about three months worth of anti-nausea medicine. Game on. And I’ve been that way ever since. I find a way to let more and more screens invade my life, no matter the cost. Mr. Sturm, it’s a little something called leadership.

So yes, I’m going write long pieces about the dangers of becoming addicted to the pull of the realtime, social web and I’ll deliver them from the heart of SoMa right into the eye of the online storm. That’s where I’m needed. You go ahead and run to your idyllic and idealized world or reading, family, thinking, work, nature, love and laughter. And I’ll be right here like I’ve always been, leading by my bad example of what can happen if things go too far. You can jump ship just when the going gets tough. I’m going out like Thelma and Louise, riding this magic iPad right over the edge of a cliff.

Sincerely,

Dave Pell, Internet Superhero
P.O. Box tweetagewasteland.com

P.S. If this letter somehow inspires you climb back aboard, I’ve got plenty of anti-nausea medicine for the both of us.


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My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.