Hermione Eyre: A foul trap for all the cyber-innocents

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The Independent Online

I woke up on Easter Sunday, and checked my email. I found some MySpace friend requests, which I felt I should reply to, and then checked my profile on Facebook, where I saw I had been invited to join Twitter, so I clicked on the link and then ... Well, by the time I logged out it was almost Easter Monday. Christ had died and risen and all I had done was approve a few friend requests and deleted an inane message from a man from Oregon. And lo, I was filled with a great hatred of the online networking community.

Joining Facebook is a bit like applying a leech to your lifeblood. This is a social networking site with more than 10 million members worldwide, which only goes to show what danger there is in numbers. You begin casually, just browsing. But you can't browse unless you start a profile. A "profile". It sounds so simple, so effortless. Be warned! This is the end of bank holidays spent in the sunshine, chasing rabbits and watching little things grow. It is the beginning of myopia, agoraphobia and days in the dark in your pyjamas.

But because you are a cyber-innocent, you create a "profile". As you do so, it sucks all the addresses out of your email account, so that you can be in touch with all the people you are already in touch with, but on a parallel internet site. Instead of one account to keep on top of, you now have two to check; more, if, like me you are fool enough to log into more than one different networking group. Can you smell the stench of futility that hangs over the whole system yet?

If you don't check into your account, you won't just have missed a message. Oh no. These sites are more manipulative than that. You will have actively refused to "become friends with" the person who has emailed you. They are said to be addictive, but the only thing that keeps me returning to these sites is a nagging feeling of cyber-social obligation.

If you fail to log in for a few days, you will find someone has "poked" you and your time to "poke" back has expired: the cyber equivalent of keeping your arms folded. These are the terms these sites are couched in. Their language makes the playground look sophisticated.

Exhaustingly, they also require a set of social skills separate to the ones you ever thought you'd need. You need a picture and a catchphrase that sum you up, a way with abbreviations and full command of the language of emoticons. You need to attract the right kind of friends to your profile, and then display them like trophies. Your identity online is something you need to construct and hone: a great fat narcissistic waste of time, if you ask me (though since I have about three online friends, you probably shouldn't).

These sites seem to have no purpose further than letting people who are already acquainted in the real world wink, nudge and banter aimlessly online. You are updated with a "news alert" when one of your friends makes friends with another of your friends. It's like an online hall of mirrors: the only content consists of a log of gossip, visitors, friends and chit-chat, like a cocktail party that has been conducted in writing. Can you think of anything more pointless? They make sites with a purpose - dating sites, property networks and the like - look as if they are the height of dignified efficiency.

Last year, 84 people completed their online tax returns on Christmas Day. They are the shining lights of online culture. Probably 84,000 spent Easter Monday fiddling with their My Space/Facebook/Bebo profiles, adding a picture here, poking a friend there. Why do we do it?

How not to avoid a celebrity

Will Ian McEwan (whose novel, On Chesil Beach, is out this week) do the festival circuit this year? At the last Aldeburgh festival, I was staying at the same hotel as McEwan and watched as, one morning, he couldn't even get to the breakfast bar without being accosted by smiling lovers of literature. Determined not to add to the throng, I spent the day trying to avoid him. I crossed the road when I saw him coming. I let a door swing shut in his face (only a stalker would hold it open, right?). Later, I took a walk across the beach, to the distant and deserted Maggi Hambling sculpture. As I drew near I saw a lone figure sitting, and brooding there. I gave a little wave, and marched towards him. Why not? As I got closer I saw why not. Reader, you know who it was.

* Jeffrey Sachs' Reith lectures begin tomorrow morning at 9am and, on the evidence of the trailers, they will be required listening. His first, entitled "Bursting at the Seams", will be about the increasingly crowded world we live in. Although the issue of human overpopulation underpins all our global dilemmas, it has long been taboo in popular debate. For example, the charity Population Concern has rebranded itself as Interact Worldwide; it doesn't help fundraising, evidently, to be too up-front about these things. It will be interesting to see if Sachs overcomes the stigma against discussing the topic, or if he retreats into obfuscation. The world is approaching the rapids, he explained on a radio show trailing the lectures - but though it is a fine and arresting metaphor, it's not quite the same thing as tackling in plain language the question of why contraception is still not available to those who need and want it.

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