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Internet's not the enemy; it's our choice to misuse it

9-5-2000 Oregon:
Perhaps they said this when the telegraph was invented; surely they said it about the telephone: It saves relationships. No, wait -- it ruins relationships. No, no -- it brings families together. Or it destroys them.

The head spins.

Not long ago a study was released by a professor at Stanford who claimed his research indicated the Internet made people anti-social.

Nonsense, I wrote soon after: the Internet fostered relationships, helped people find one another and made it easier to keep in touch.

A lot of readers responded. But these weren't philosophical replies, or measured opinions. No, people sent accounts of their own experiences with the Web-as-matchmaker, or the Web-as-home-wrecker.

Three times as many people wrote to praise the Net as to condemn it. Some said friendships had been sustained or strengthened because of the Web.

John Phillips moved to the countryside a while back. "Were it not for e-mail," he wrote, "I would have fewer friends. It is too hard to write a letter and lick a stamp and go to the mailbox in the rain. . . . Internet communication is wonderful. I completely disagree with anyone who says it ruins relationships and isolates."

Tom Clardy agreed, and shared his plans to allow friends to vicariously enjoy his upcoming cross-country vacation, on which he'll be "recording highlights of my journey with my digital camera, downloading to a laptop, composing some prose and poetic descriptions of unusual faces and places, to share, via the Web, with interested 'cyberfriends' back in Portland and across the country."

It also brings families closer. A man who asked to remain anonymous sent copies of a recent e-mail exchange with his oldest daughter, with whom he had lost touch until she found his e-mail address on the Internet.

"The Internet makes it easier to start over," he wrote.

Mary Morrell wrote, "Were it not for the Internet I would have found it much more difficult, if not nigh onto impossible, to arrange a birthday party and family reunion for my soon-to-be-80-year-old mother. She lives in Cornelius and I in Watford, England."

Mary also reads The Oregonian over the Net, to keep in touch with her home state.

I heard from people who'd met their mates online in a Christian chat room, a fly-fishing forum and a poetry newsgroup.

Lidiya Cornelius wrote, "I found my husband Darrell by Internet. We connected by e-mail (for) about one year. I arrived from the Ukraine in the Oregon. . . . I live here eight month. Darrell and I married last year in sunny Las Vegas. We are very happy."

A woman named Susan wrote: "Just a week ago today, I looked up an old love on the Internet and e-mailed him. It had been 30 years since we corresponded. . . . I am overjoyed to report that he wrote back, and in this past week we have been exchanging heartfelt e-mails that exceed my expectations. We clearly have found each other again, and all the love and closeness has been renewed. . . . This would not have been possible without the Internet, because I had no idea where he was." On the Net, "I found him within five minutes."

But one in four responses brought sad stories, stories that have become familiar in the last few years, but which still cause enormous pain when your family is affected.

"The Internet . . . has proven very destructive to my marriage," wrote one woman whose husband has become, she says, addicted to the Web. "Our 10-year-old son has stated his father's life is spent at the computer. Family members visit and try to talk to my husband, with him never leaving the computer. People who speak to him on the phone know that he is typing even while conversing."

A metro-area man wrote: "I have worked with computers over 20 years, and would never dream of turning off the connection. However . . . there are problems, and they are serious. I have a co-worker who is in the midst of a divorce due to his wife's online affair with a chat-room buddy. I only found out this morning that my wife of almost 14 years is doing the same. The ability to transfer emotions from face-to-face relationships to a fantasized or embellished reality is all too easy. The Internet is like a buzz saw. It can do as much damage as good."

His point is made even better by Steve, who was in a confessional mood when he wrote.

Steve placed a message for his old high school sweetheart on several Internet sites; within two weeks she responded. Now both were divorcing, and Steve was leaving Oregon to be with his old flame.

"You have heard that cliche, 'Be careful what you wish for,' " he wrote. "Well, in today's high-tech age I would add, be careful who you search for. My search might have been fate or destiny. But it destroyed a 31-year-old marriage. Is it the computer's fault? I don't think so. It is like any new invention, it is all in how you use it."

Tom Clardy quoted Marshall McLuhan: "Electronic circuitry is the extension of the central nervous system."

Readers' stories make that point: The Internet is just a brand new way to make the same old choices. ..more.. by Margie Boulé

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