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June 2, 1999


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The midnight click: Manjula Padmanabhan on her journey from an email sorting newbie to a hopeless chat junkie.The midnight click: Manjula Padmanabhan on her journey from an email sorting newbie to a hopeless chat junkie. Some weeks ago, Outlook magazine carried a solemn article about a new disease that threatens the wellbeing and sanity of human society around the world.

Email this story to a friend. It is called Internet Addiction Syndrome. It affects people whose obsession with Web based activities causes them to spend hours online, most often while chatting with strangers from all over the world.

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There was a checklist of 15 symptoms to look out for and I tested positive for all but three! So this communication is from one of the rampantly infected.

The fever came on in three stages. The first sign was a rash called email. This is actually the same disease as IAS (no relation to the branch of government service bearing the same initials) but in a modest manifestation.

The server at VSNL was then in its infancy, making it extremely difficult to get connected. I would spend sometimes an hour fruitlessly dialling up, listening to the moronic sound that the modem makes when it is attempting to make the jump to cyberspace.

If you have ever heard a fax machine screeching and wailing, you'll recognise that a modem is its first cousin. Mine sounds something like this: TINNGGGGGG-BONNGGGGG-poooooop-PONG-PONG! Followed by CHUFFFFFFFFFF and then, if all goes well, a kind of musical hiccup as the first stage of the connection is made.

A black screen reminiscent of the Void pops up on the monitor. And against the face of the Void a cryptic message materialises: USER ACCESS AUTHENTICATION it reads, and asks for a USER NAME.

I type "mhs" AND WAIT ONE MINUTE. Invisible mystic events occur in the ether. At a given moment, all the icons on the desktop give a little hop. A tiny graphic showing two computer monitors enjoying electronic congress zooms to the lower right-hand edge of my screen.

And in moments, once I have followed the ritual to its proper conclusion, messages will start to appear out of the void, from around the world or just next door, like spirit communications.

Just so must the pythonesses of old have gazed into their sacred pools and oracular smokestacks, looking for portents suggesting the best day for sending troops into battle against the Visigoths.

When my condition was still reasonably under control, I used to dial up about three times a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once late at night.

If I had messages, I would answer them immediately, spending maybe 15 minutes on each. This phase, which might be called the benign or dormant phase, lasted some months.

Gradually the symptoms died down I went back to using ordinary speech and the telephone as my principle means of communication.

It was only much more recently, about ten months ago, that the disease suddenly reappeared in its active form. I had gone to Madras, where my niece introduced me to a delightful cyber café just one minute's walk from my family home.

It took only three exposures in that café to hook me. First my niece registered me as a Hotmail user, then I spent one session emailing everyone I knew and finally I looked up the site of my favourite game, MYST.

And that was it. Since then I have entered what might be called the third or near-terminal phase, meaning that I'm not really comfortable unless I'm close to a terminal.

I do my best to avoid logging on more than three times a day and when I get through, try not to spend more than half an hour at any one session.

I no longer bother with minor distractions such as online news and how to buy bargain CDs in Bogota. I go straight to whichever chat site is my current location of choice and stay there, giggling inanely until I either lose my connection or my trigger finger goes numb from clicking the left button on the mouse too much.

It may sound a little heartless but I am unmoved to read, in Outlook, about the couple which is breaking up because the wife complains that her husband doesn't talk to her anymore, preferring to spend up to eight hours chatting with strangers in Canada and Brazil. The husband, it seems, once even dialled up en route to Pune on his laptop, using his cell phone to make the connection!

She was suing for divorce, but I would advice her to get her own Internet connection first. She might make enough friends in the space of a week to make up for all the time that her husband does not spend with her.

She won't have to worry about AIDS or herpes or pregnancy, she'll have the whole world to choose from and she can even make dates to meet someone of her choice in a private chat-room.

A cyber friend can be warm, caring, interesting, polite and, best of all, accessible at the cost of one local phone call!

Some people complain that electronic friendships are not the same as real world ones. And that's true! They're better.

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