Confessions of an Internet Addict

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Newsweek's cover story this week posits that "new research says the Internet can make us lonely and depressed--and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness." We found an Internet addict to tell us all about his affliction.

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A shocking portrait of Internet addiction.

One night in early July, Alexis Madrigal woke from a troubled night of sleep. His cat had been attacking his feet under the covers and he had to get up early the next morning for a conference call. He was worried and anxious. Looking for a hit of dopamine, Madrigal reached next to his bed and grabbed his omnipresent iPhone. Pulling the phone close to his eyes, right next to his frontal cortex, he peered through the darkness at his screen, his fingers nearly autonomously finding the little icon for Twitter, which had come to represent his social world.

There they were: his drug of choice, the friendly avatars of his life. Flicking backwards and forwards in time and jumping all over the globe almost as if he were on LSD, he favorited articles to read the next morning and soon, he was calm and tired and went back to sleep.

But imagine him lying there in the dark, face illuminated by a screen, scanning his Twitter feed for something to soothe his nerves, which connected to his brain, which had been rewired by a life on the Internet.

If you put him in a brain scanner, instead of in bed in his middle class home next to his wife, you'd see that Madrigal's brain was different from non-Internet users. The areas responsible for gainful employment, communication skills, and quick thinking had grown; the areas responsible for appreciating network television and weekly magazines and the love of dirt under his fingernails had atrophied. There was something wrong with Madrigal relative to the people right before him, who had been addicted to more profitable mainstream media. This was true despite Madrigal's eschewing that hardest Internet drug, Facebook.

There was no doubt that he felt the magnetic power of his phone and its tentacled apps at inappropriate times (dinner, watching movies, Christmas Eve). There was no doubt that sometimes the medium overtook the messages. He would tweet something solely so it would be retweeted. He would check Instagram twice in 10 minutes. The means to connect would become an ends; the feedback mechanism, the game mechanic, would flatten real connections into numbers. This quantified social life was much less rewarding and rich than he wanted it to be, but it was cheap (time is money). 

Still, in talking with Madrigal, you'd find that literally dozens of online, Twitterified connections had leapt from the world of his addiction to the pure, happy world of "in real life." He made a partial list of friends, colleagues, and collaborators he'd met through the Interwebs and it did not feel like these people were a symptom of his disease: Megan Garber, Robin Sloan, Evgeny Morozov, Tim Maly, Robinson Meyer, Clay Shirky, Dan Sinker, Alexandra Samuel, Dave Roberts, Zeynep Tufekci, Clara Jeffery, Felix Salmon, multiple Chris Andersons, Rebecca Skloot, Chris Mims, John Pavlus, Sarah Weinman, Rita King, Josh Fouts, Jacob Wolman, Alex Howard, Maria Popova, Katie Baynes, Nathan Jurgenson, Biella Coleman, Gustavo Arellano, Jon Christensen, David Dobbs, Steve Silberman, Ian Bogost.

If he was addicted to Twitter and the Internet, he said, it was to these people that he was addicted. They are his favorite drug.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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