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How to disconnect from your online life


What are the effects of spending so much time updating that all-consuming status bar? Daniel Sieberg has been taking a closer look.

By Katie Beck
BBC World News America

There is now a generation who do not remember the world before the internet took off, and who live out their lives in a slew of public online arenas. But there is also a growing number of people who feel their life online has spun out of control.

Someone born in 1992 will be 18 this year. And in one way or another, their entire life has been lived online.

Web 2.0 Suicide Machine
The suicide machine offers to wipe your online slate clean

From birth announcements to e-mails to childhood photos, and now social networks and blogs, traces of a person's whole life could be pieced together online.

For many, a limited conception of privacy is normal, but there are some people who are now having second thoughts about how much of themselves to display to the world.

Daniel Sieberg is one of them. As a television correspondent, he recognizes that social networks had taken over his life before he decided to take the jump, and disconnect.

"Me and my ego got sucked in. Big time. And my relationships suffered," he said in his Declaration of Disconnection posted on the Huffington Post.

"I allowed the passive acceptance of strangers to replace meaningful interaction with the people I know and love. I had become more interested in a wall post here or a poke there."

'Beyond privacy'

Gordan Savicic picked up on the fact that some people feel they have lost control online. He created a service to help people disconnect from social networks.

Based in the Netherlands, the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine is a website that logs into your accounts and deletes all of your data, friend-by-friend and post-by-post.

There is quite a demand for the service.

People just want to get rid [of online profiles] because they noticed they spend way too much time in front of the computer
Gordan Savicic of Suicide Machine

It has had about 90,000 requests so far and there is currently a month-long backlog.

"We figured out that people have advertised so much with their online ego, that basically a kind of avatar persona has been created so actually people start talking about killing someone like it would be a real person," says Mr Savicic.

So it goes far beyond privacy. The more time we spend in the digital world, cultivating our online profiles and virtual networks, according to Mr Savicic, the less time we are spending in our real lives communicating with our real friends.

"People just want to get rid [of online profiles] because they noticed they spend way too much time in front of the computer," says Mr Savicic. "They are basically getting their analogue life back."

Risks and limits

But according to psychiatrist Dr Jerald Block, based in Portland, Oregon, "disconnecting poses some risks".

Dr Block treats patients who use the internet excessively - more than 30 or 40 hours a week.

"If you are heavily active [on the internet], by disconnecting you are losing a significant relationship. Those 30 or 40 hours of time now have to be filled with real life."

Dr Block says some people can find it very gratifying, while others find they are not capable of staying disconnected.

However, he believes the worst case scenario is when the decision to disconnect is made by a third party. "It can be a disaster and can even lead to suicide."

For 23-year-old Giorgio Pagoria, signing up on social networking websites is out of the question. Proud of not being on Facebook, he says social networking sites are too addictive.

"At the beginning you do it for contacts, friendships, event planning, but then you get into the loop and you can't just get out, you become addicted and not in a good way."

Still, Mr Pagoria acknowledges that it can be difficult to remain disconnected in his study abroad programme, called Erasmus, in the Netherlands.

"Here in Erasmus everybody uses it to organize events and if it wasn't for my roommate who is on Facebook I would miss out and I would probably have to use my phone more."

Amplified lives

There are some people who fear they are being changed by a virtual world of status updates and 140 character distillations of their lives.

Clay Shirky on the issues of privacy in social media

If we can't live in the moment without tweeting about it, or broadcasting all of our thoughts to our 2,000 Facebook friends, are we in danger of losing our sense of identity?

Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus, says the age of the internet may not be changing who we are as people, but it is altering the way we see each other.

"We are a social species, we've always shaped each other's identities.

"What's happened now, is the explicitness, the permanentness, the globalness, the searchability, all of those things have amplified a bunch of those effects."

So how do we navigate this magnified environment we are all operating in now? Mr Shirky's advice is to find balance.

"We should look at the medium and say what are its advantages and disadvantages, and how can we maximise the former and minimize the latter, based on the way the world is right now?"

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