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Hello, my name is Richard and I am an egosurfer. The habit began about five years ago, and now I need help. Like most journalists, I can't deny that one of my private joys is seeing my byline in print. Now the internet is allowing me to feed this vanity to an ever greater extent, and the occasional sneaky web search has grown into a full-blown obsession with how high up Google's ranking my articles appear when I put my name into the search box. When I last looked, my best effort was a rather humiliating 47th place. You know you have a problem when you find yourself competing for ranking with a retired basketball player from the 1970s.
Not that I'm alone in suffering from a dysfunctional techno-habit. New technologies have revealed a whole raft of hitherto unsuspected personality problems: think crackberry, powerpointlessness or cheesepodding. Most of us are familiar with sending an email to a colleague sitting a couple of feet away instead of talking to them. Some go onto the web to snoop on old friends, colleagues or even first dates. More of us than ever reveal highly personal information on blogs or MySpace entries. A few will even use internet anonymity to fool others into believing they are someone else altogether. So are these web syndromes and technological tics new versions of old afflictions, or are we developing fresh mind bugs?
Developing a bad habit is easier than many might think. "You can become addicted to potentially anything you do," says Mark Griffiths, an addiction researcher at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, "because addictions rely on constant rewards." Indeed, although definitions of addiction vary, there is a body of evidence that suggests drug addictions and non-drug habits share the same neural pathways (New Scientist, 26 August, p 30). While only a hardcore few can be considered true technology addicts, an entirely unscientific survey of the web, and of New Scientist staff, has revealed how prevalent techno-addictions may have become.
The web in particular has opened up a host of opportunities for overindulgence. Take Wikipedia. Updating the entries -- something anyone can do -- has become almost a way of life for some. There are more than 2400 "Wikipedians", p 36 -- you know where to look it up if you don't know what it means -- who have edited more than 4000 pages each. "It's clearly like crack for some people," says Dan Cosley at Cornell University in New York, who has studied how websites such as Wikipedia foster a community. To committed Wikipedians, he says, the site is more than a useful information resource; it's the embodiment of an ideology of free information for all.
Email is another area where things can get out of hand. While email has led to a revival of the habit of penning short notes to friends and acquaintances, the ease with which we can do this means that we don't always think hard enough about where our casual comments could end up. This was the undoing of US broadcaster Keith Olbermann, who earlier this year sent a private email in which he described a fellow MSNBC reporter as "dumber than a suitcase of rocks". Unfortunately for Olbermann, the words found their way into the New York Daily News.
Pam Briggs, a specialist in human-computer interaction at the University of Northumbria, UK, says the lack of cues such as facial expressions or body language when communicating electronically can lead us to overcompensate in what we say. "The medium is so thin, there's little room for projecting ourselves into it," says Briggs. "When all the social cues disappear, we feel we have to put something else into the void, which is often an overemotional or over-intimate message."
The habit of forwarding jokey emails or YouTube videos -- think Diet Coke and Mentos fountains -- can also say a lot about how people want to be perceived, Briggs adds. "We rarely want to be seen as too serious, so we try to project more of our personality into email." This could also explain why many bloggers expose private information that they would never shout out to a crowded room -- another modern trend. Just ask Jessica Cutler, the US Senate aide who in 2004 posted graphic descriptions on her blog Washingtonienne, recounting tales of sexual mischief on Capitol Hill. Or perhaps blogger Catherine Sanderson -- also known as La Petite Anglaise -- who was sacked this year for her accounts of the everyday life and loves of a secretary at the Paris-based firm where she was employed. It seemed her bosses were less than thrilled that thousands were logging on to www.petiteanglaise.com to read her Bridget Jones-like tales of stuffy colleagues and exposed cleavage during business meetings.
Such indiscretions are not the only way virtual habits feed back into the real world. According to Jeff Hancock, who specialises in computer-mediated communication at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, the way we act and emote online has implications for our offline selves. In a study to be published shortly, he and colleagues asked subjects to pretend to be extroverted either on a live blog or in a Microsoft Word document they knew would not be made public, and then ran the participants through a personality test. Hancock says the group that blogged emerged as more extroverted than the Word group. He says that acting out a particular personality online reinforces the behaviour, making it more likely to be followed in real life. This could start a cycle as our public and virtual selves feed into each other and we become gradually more indulgent, more indiscreet -- or perhaps more egocentric. I do hope this article improves my Google ranking.
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