Are Always-Connected Consumers Really Virtual Crackheads?

A Prominent Doctor Considers the Mental State of Internet Addicts. But, Hey, What About the Dealers?

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Look out! The internet is ruining your life! Again!

Last week the blogosphere busied itself with obsessing over the publication of an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Dr. Jerald Block, a psychiatrist at the Oregon Health & Science University, in which he argued that internet addiction should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Jason Calacanis: Frugal new-media boss or webby slave driver?
Jason Calacanis: Frugal new-media boss or webby slave driver? Credit: Ed Bailey
In other words, endlessly checking Facebook or spending hours mainlining YouTube could be a sign of an actual, specific sort of mental illness. That diagnosis was, of course, perfect fodder for bloggers, who could muse about their own craziness while continuing to engage in precisely the activity that makes them crazy -- while also implicating their readers. It was like watching a bottle of Jack Daniel's getting passed around at an AA meeting.

Internet addiction as a media meme, of course, dates almost to the earliest days of the medium (and obviously interweaves with other media addictions -- to TV, video games, etc.). But what makes this latest flare-up particularly scary is the fact that Block's got some compelling ammunition for his argument. As David Smith of The Guardian, the British paper largely responsible for launching the story into the blogosphere, wrote: "A primary case study is South Korea, which has the greatest use of broadband in the world. Block points out that 10 people died from blood clots from remaining seated for long periods in internet cafés. ... The government estimates that around 210,000 South Korean children are [addicted] and in need of treatment."

Even before Dr. Block's editorial, I'd been thinking a lot about the ways people use the internet to seriously screw up their lives -- their relationships and their physical and emotional health. For starters, on Jan. 3, famed tech-blog titan Om Malik (GigaOM) revealed that he'd taken a few days off from blogging because he'd had a heart attack -- at 41 -- which had many bloggers, with their sedentary, deskbound lifestyles, wondering if they, too, were digging early graves for themselves. And early last month, Jason Calacanis, CEO of search engine Mahalo, became a new-media whipping boy when he posted an article on his personal blog titled "How to save money running a start-up" that was widely received as being a guide to overworking employees (along with plenty of innocuous suggestions, he included nuggets such as "Fire people who are not workaholics" -- which he later amended to "Fire people who don't love their work" in response to his critics).

In other words, the Web 2.0 economy is all about working webby wage slaves to death.

So where do we -- media people, marketing people, everyday web users -- go from here? For one thing, we can heed the advice of David Heinemeier Hansson, one of the principals of my all-time-favorite web-app company, Chicago-based 37signals. He responded to Calacanis with a blog post titled "Fire the workaholics," a plea for decency and balance. Among his points: "If your start-up can only succeed by being a sweatshop, your idea is simply not good enough. Go back to the drawing board and come up with something better that can be implemented by whole people, not cogs."

As for consumers? Truth is, media people and marketers increasingly seem to regard them as Pavlovian pets whose behavior can be tweaked round the clock, on the fly, by gaming the stimuli that feeds into their always-connected broadband-addicted brains (e.g., If we do this sinister, lowest-common-denominator thing, we can goose click-throughs!).

For those of us making media, the question basically comes down to this: Are we really offering/selling something that serves the needs of "whole people"?

And given the monomaniacal focus on metrics, is that even possible anymore?
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