The Loneliness of Online Life

Photo illustration by Justin Metz (The Daily Beast)

Photo illustration by Justin Metz (The Daily Beast)

We don’t often talk about the loneliness of online life.

For months we don’t notice it.

If my mother hadn’t died, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed it at all.

We blog, we email, we post, we comment.

My cousin and I were sitting in the back yard, drinking tea.  Electronic devices littered the table:  laptops, phones, e-readers.  She opened her laptop and checked her email.  She started crying.   An online friend at a Jane Austen fan group had posted a 1,000-word tirade calling her an idiot.  My cousin, a scatty reader who prefers history to fiction, had written that Anne Elliott, the heroine of Persuasion, was “a wimp” for not having married the love of her life, Captain Wentworth.  She said Anne shouldn’t have obeyed her silly father and the conventional Lady Russell, her late mother’s best friend.

“This is an ignorant misreading of Austen’s morals and manners,” her online friend wrote.

persuasion-jane-austen-paperback-cover-artAll right, not the end of the world, you say.  Any of you who belong to  Janeite groups know quite well that they quarrel all the time.  They know tiny things about Austen’s books that my cousin would never dream of.  They argue for days about minuscule details.

She knows this friend from online poker. Yes, that’s the internet for you.

I know how she feels.  Many years ago I shut down the computer during a discussion of The Aeneid in a chatroom on AOL .  “Are you crying?”  my husband asked incredulously.  Yes, I was.  I can’t remember what was said to me, but it was vicious.

There is an emptiness and deep sadness in this kind of online fighting.  You don’t choose to participate in it, and then there it is.  Didn’t you go online to get away from this?  Aren’t you seeking “purer” relationships?  Since my mother’s death, I have spent less time online, more time outdoors.  I don’t want to miss  “real life.”

I’m also reading better books now. The time that’s left should be well-spent.

I do intend to join at least one new online reading group this fall.  Winter is coming.

I love my online life, and I do appreciate my cyberfriends.  Online life can complement real life.

It’s time to reread Jane Austen.  Maybe not Persuasion.  Anne is a bit wimpish, whatever the Janeites say.

Don’t say I said, so, though.

12 thoughts on “The Loneliness of Online Life

  1. Online life is real, it’s just not physically near — maybe “just” is too minimalizing a word. Over the years I’ve learned first not to somehow get into quarrels and become aware of what hurts others more, and two when I see one evolving, go silent. In fact I’m now not on any list-servs or read any blogs where I come across quarrels.

    This is not to say that online life cannot be lonely. So too is real life. They are lonely in different ways.

    OTOH, I’ve found over the past couple of weeks it’s terribly important to be with people physically and phone calls are precious. OTO, what some Net friends have “said” (written) I’ve held in my heart.

  2. I think I need it all — the on-line friends and the non-virtual ones I can share a cup of real coffee with. The on-line friends have added great pleasure to my reading, both from their suggestions and from their reactions to what I write about my reading.

    Still, beware. I once spoke negatively about a book and heard directly from the author. He said that I had no sense of humor because I did not recognize that his comments were meant to be humorous. Actually, I did realize that, but did not think it was funny to mock an old woman, since I am one myself. I guess he does not aspire to that accomplishment, worse luck.

    And Ann Elliott is a wimp, but I understand and forgive.

  3. I know Jane Austen very well indeed; I cannot tell you how many times I have read her books. So, trust me. Anne is a wimp, and Jane Austen makes herself very clear about it. Other women certainly had more guts, and Anne is punished for her weekness. As for the Internet and “physical” friends, these days we need both, and should keep the balance as best we can. Real friends, digital or otherwise, would not treat you with disrespect, so the trolls who called your cousin an idiot, or those who insulted you, are simply not friends…

  4. I appreciate your comments on this subject. I know we all encounter online craziness sometimes. My most recent experience was with a man who mocked a post I wrote here and used words like “defecating” (I’ll spare you the rest). It would have been more appropriate for me to feel angry than upset, but I was very puzzled as to why he bothered here at all.

    Ellen, you have run those wonderful Yahoo groups for years, and I did manage to write one brief post on your Trollope19thCenturyLit group this week. I am very much enjoying An Eye for an Eye and hope to participate more. And, yes, I know you’ve seen some of this over the years. It IS good to balance the online with the physical contact. I think often of what you are going through now.

    SilverSeason, yes, I like the virtual and the non-virtual. Online life gives us opportunities to meet people we’d never meet. I am sorry about the writer! That doesn’t surprise me. It’s hard to believe sometimes that they find our blogs, but they do want to know what we think of them.

    Ilil, yes, there are trolls out there! Sometimes people just get carried away. My cousin loves online life even more than I do, and since she is really a nonfiction reader, she had no idea anyone would feel so strongly about Anne. People have their ups and downs, and sometimes the tone doesn’t come across….

  5. Definitely it’s nice to have both – the online and the real complement each other, but I *am* selective about the online as I’ve heard how harsh it can be in some places. Luckily I haven’t really experienced any nastiness so far – fingers crossed. And yes, Anne was a wimp, but also a victim of prevailing mores!

  6. Anne is not a wimp. We all make mistakes. If Anne had not refused Captain Wentworth the first time there would have been no “Persuasion” novel.

  7. Yes, Cynthia, it WAS harsh. Something went wrong there…these things happen online.

    Karen, you’re lucky you’ve never experienced this kind of thing!

    Ida, I agree that the mature Anne isn’t a wimp. But as a young woman when she was doing her duty…give me Lydia in Pride and Prejudice!:) (I have oddly become fond of the anti-heroines in Austen, probably because I’ve read the books too many times so look at something new.)

    • Anne as a more mature woman actually admits to herself (with Jane Austen’s approval) that she certainly was a young wimp. Her actions cannot be criticized in comparison to the anti-heroines like Lydia, in my opinion, because Anne IS a lady with good principles. However, one can compare her to two other women who assumed they lost the love of their lives — Jane Bennet, in Pride and Prejudcie and particularly Eleanor in Sense and Sensibility. Neither of them shows the kind of weakness, or “wimpiness” exhibited by Anne. Their romances are broken — but not because they succumbed to pressure and denied their own heart. And they can bear it with dignity and strength, and not blame themselves for what happened.

  8. I haven’t read Persuasion yet, but I was reminded of the line about academic infighting being so vicious because the stakes are so small – how much more so on teh interwebz. Astonished though anyone can get vicious over the Aeneid.

  9. Yes, you’re right. We all want to make friends, but then… something happens in some of these groups.

    Yes, and since I’m the only one who knew Latin, I never dreamed that I would be slammed. (They were very hard on The Aeneid, too.)

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