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The Internet as online confessional

As the number of sites inviting anonymous confessions grow, what do all
these revelations achieve?

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 2009



Mom was right: Television is no good for us. Even if you forgo the content and just focus on the activity, there's little doubt that staring at a screen inside your home is not as healthy for a community's well-being as sitting on your front stoop and getting to know your neighbors.

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That is, unless your neighbors are inside, too. In the 2000 bestseller "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," public-policy thinker Robert D. Putnam blamed the boob tube, among other factors, for disconnecting us from one another, leading to a crisis in American life that is making us more fearful, stressed, unhappy, and less willing to look over the fence to understand the dynamics of who lives next door.

But if television made us hermits, the Internet is making us hermits with access to a fabulous social life. The immediacy of online media coupled with the development of user-friendly technology is creating a culture of status seekers who find comfort with an anonymous nation of friends (Facebook), followers (Twitter), and no shortage of advocates, cheerleaders, confessors, admirers, and confidants we all invite into our homes without ever having to look them straight in the eye.

Like television, the Internet is enabling us to disconnect from the physical world, except it is going one step further and replacing it with one that is virtual.

Dmitri Williams, assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, says that while the combination of suburban development and living-room technology has whittled civic life from what it was generations ago, the sudden advancement in social networking has brought us back in touch with our neighbors, even if they are on another continent.

"It's like when the dam bursts and water's flooding in: You say, 'Wow, there are people out there.' When you think about this in terms of supply and demand, demand has always been there but it was pent-up," says Dr. Williams. "People connecting with each other are just humans being humans. Humans are social. [The Internet] is just reintroducing each other to our fellow humans."

Over the past two years, niche sites have hit the ground running, going beyond the simple connectivity offered by social-network giants Facebook and MySpace. ExperienceProject.com, TruuConfessions.com, FMyLife.com, PostSecret.com, and many others encourage users to anonymously post diary entries that range from mundane thoughts to game-­changing epiphanies.

The volume of these entries in such a short span of time (Experience Project, for instance, boasts 2.3 million unique visits per month since launching in 2007), suggests people are more relaxed sharing intimacies online than they would be when the computer is powered down.

The public purging is a natural extension of the reality television boom of the last decade, according to Michael Stefanone, assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). His research found that ever since the Internet evolved from a place where users could access content to one where they actually produced content themselves, users more often than not modeled their behavior on what is considered the norm on reality television shows: frank discussions about sexuality, intimate disclosures of family history, a willingness to share personal videos and photos.

"In each case it was always reality television ... that explained how much time and energy people were investing in the new tools online," says Dr. Stefanone. As a result, he says, "people's boundaries of privacy are generally becoming more relaxed."

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