Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Double-edged Internet — CMB post

This post originally appeared on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

Hi. My name is Susan. I'm addicted to the Internet.

Well, maybe that's an overstatement, but I do have a blog. OK, I contribute to this blog, have several business blogs, and I the blogs I follow include … well, let's just say I keep up and am a regular commenter.

Then there's my new Website. And my husband's Website. And my Yahoo, LinkedIn and Google groups. And my SheWrites account. And my Facebook account. But I do not Twitter (except for my husband's store). That's where I draw the line. At least today.

Hi. My name is Susan. I'm addicted to the Internet.

Every day I am astounded by all the Internet has to offer. There are the big things, like huge outpourings of generosity and compassion for the people of Haiti — and great ways to vet the organizations involved. So many innovative ways to help have been spurred by technology, like Google's offer of free voice calls to Haiti for US families with relatives in the stricken nation.

Then there are the little things, like recipe calculators (transform your favorite family dish to a meal for 25 instantly!) There are cool little widgets (many free!) to download that will make your Web life easier.

There's the common application that my daughter has used to apply to colleges, and all kinds of tools for comparing schools, making that process so much simpler than when I was her age.

There's a strange and wonderful intimacy that can develop among virtual friends, like the mom from this very group who received astounding messages of love and sympathy when she lost her daughter.

Personally, I live for really enjoy the comments I get on my blog. Today, for example, a complete stranger emailed me to tell me how much she loves my posts and even called me "a clever, clever woman." A little thing, yes, but it made my day.

There are seemingly infinite ways to connect online, making life less difficult and isolating for parents and caregivers; more interesting for the shy, geographically isolated or housebound; and more accessible for students and professionals seeking research materials.

Games, apps, online libraries, support groups, professional groups, lists, aggregators, search engines … so much good stuff, the mind boggles.

And then there's the other side — the aggravating, insidious, even dangerous side.

How many of us have "misdiagnosed" ourselves or a loved one by becoming cyberchondriacs? How many viruses have we had to fight, spread by innocent-seeming emails? How many writers have lost their jobs due to free content providers and news aggregators?

There are hackers and phishers and screen scrapers; people who want your money, your identity, your computer's integrity, or worse. There are predators and pornographers. There are individual bad guys and organized scam efforts.

Our family has not been immune. My daughter is a victim of online slander. A few years back, when she started high school, someone anonymously posted an unflattering picture with a vile caption that included her full name. I tried repeatedly to contact the host of the site and get it taken down, pointing out that she was a minor, and that her photo and name were being used without permission. No response. The photo still lurks in the ether and comes up whenever you search her name. Will it ruin her life? No, but it stinks.

While technology has made it so easy to donate to Haiti (proving that "going viral" can be a good thing), there are frauds out there and we need to be wary. In addition to cheating donors out of their heartfelt contributions, these fraudulent sites are also interfering with donations to legitimate organizations, some of which have had their sites wrongly blocked.

I, myself, feel the need to offer up a mea culpa for poor Internet judgment. Several groups have recently formed in our community to protest the proposed closing of our two small branch libraries. One posted on Facebook and I immediately became a fan. Who could possibly be against keeping libraries open, I reasoned. The trouble is that I jumped on this band wagon without any thought or research.

While I would love to keep our libraries open, a recent conversation led me to understand that this may not be the best option. With a budget deficit of $9,532,100 and a $140M pension fund deficit, tough choices must be made. What other services or programs might we lose in the tradeoff?

I'm not saying these branch library supporters are wrong; but I'm not saying they are right, either. I need to learn more before I can make the best decision in a bad situation. And good decisions do not come from mob mentality — they come from honest, forthright discussion. Somehow, in the heat of the Internet, I forgot.

I remember when my mom was teaching me how to sew, she said: "This machine is a wonderful tool, but you need to learn how to use it carefully." Good advice.

Hi. My name is Susan. I'm addicted to the Internet.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman isn't clicking around the Web, she can be found at Two Kinds of People and on her new Website.

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