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The Web made me do it

The acceptance and encouragement of online communities can have a profound effect -- for better or for worse.

In the early days of the Web, distrustful, technophobic parents tended to focus on the dangers of giving out personal details online, and on the likelihood that the "Angel_Hunni" or "sweetgrrl88" engaging in an IRC tete-a-tete was actually a 60-year-old man. The Internet was a dark, foreboding, ASCII-rendered forest that threatened to rob young people of their innocence, purity and credit card details.

At the age of 13, I was the first of my group of friends to "get connected", and quickly became addicted to having a wealth of information at my disposal. Sure, most of that information was presented in black text on a grey background surrounded by the odd broken gif, and the content was chiefly bad jokes, sci-fi television program fan pages and the self-obsessed rantings of angst-ridden adolescents, but it was undeniably compelling all the same.

Staying up late, attempting to muffle every keystroke as the less tech-enamoured members of my family lay slumbering, I would spend hours typing topics that interested me into the search field of an embryonic version of Yahoo and was repeatedly amazed to find that others were talking about them. Of particular curiosity was the unabashed level of fervour that was expressed online -- suddenly, it seemed perfectly acceptable to gush about the repressed sexuality exhibited between Mulder and Scully in episode 4 of The X-Files' third season.

Encouraged by a band of fellow enthusiasts, my passing interest in The X-Files became a full-blown obsession, to the extent that I even wrote a truly awful fan fiction short story and submitted it to an online archive.

What I wonder about now (amid other more weighty concerns, naturally) is whether I would have even cared about The X-Files if I hadn't encountered those Web-based groups devoted to the show. There was something about meeting people online that inspired a certain competitiveness -- a need to discover more and keep abreast of what everyone was talking about. If I couldn't attribute a random quote to the correct character and episode, I was falling behind.

All this X-Files talk is a little embarrassing in retrospect, but the idea of being inspired and influenced by people you have only encountered online is an interesting one.

One of the Net's most alluring attributes is its ability to connect people who otherwise never would have encountered each other. It can be heartening to discover that your interests are not as obscure as you thought, and that somewhere in the online world, someone is eager to discuss the same things you find fascinating.

However, this ability to enthuse with unseen companions has its dark side. About a year ago, several women's magazines latched onto the phenomenon of "pro-anorexia" Web sites. These sites glorify eating disorders and the pursuit of emaciation, and offer communities where people -- mostly teenage girls -- compete with one another over who can eat the least and upload photos of desperately gaunt women they hope to emulate.

The sense of acceptance and encouragement often found in online communities can drive people toward destructive behaviour, as it can be justified because it is supported by those like-minded Internet buddies. The "What is normal, anyway?" approach may offer a way to subvert the dominant paradigm or resist the mainstream, but when "normal" is a group of adolescent girls trying to starve themselves to death, there is a major problem.