A few days ago, I stumbled across an obscure online chatroom. I’m still there.
Right now, there are ten people online, 6 or 10 or 12 short of the usual. We’re all sitting at our computers, going about our lives, watching Orange is the New Black, practicing guitar for the next gig, packing a bowl, sitting at work, gaming, sleeping, eating. Which is all completely normal, except our webcams and mics are on, and our faces and voices are being broadcast to everyone else in the “room”. Right now, no one’s talking, except a few people on the text chat. And I, the new guy, am putting in my hours.
I’ll call this chatroom “Ilium.” Ilium is a small town, of maybe a hundred, give-or-take, dedicated users. A random cross-section of society, made up of people who happened to step in one day, and haven’t stepped out. Perhaps, more accurately, Ilium is an extended family. Some of the members have never been online at the same time, but they know of each other. The members have inside jokes, they Snapchat each other, they tell each other secrets. There’s the cute girl, the British guys, the old dude, the ukulele player. There is the group of teenagers that never says a word, just turns on chat and mutes themselves, while they smoke weed and watch and listen. Ilium is a modern support system for what humanity needs most of all: community.
Today I can order food or clothes or drugs or camping gear, all from the comfort of my couch at home.
Now, I wake up, I see if anyone’s online. I stick my laptop in my bag, and turn on the Mumble iPhone app for the chatroom, the voice chat that is independent of the video and text. I mute myself and get ready for work, listening to people waking up, and to others falling asleep. Some days it’s stone silent. I get to work, click my Favorites tab for the chatroom, turn on Mumble again, and continue on with my day. When I get home, I turn it on again, and by that time, hopefully, people are awake. This is when I join the conversation.
That’s what they call me, my initials, my username, JSO. For all they know or care, that’s my real name, just like john_stamos and FedEx and everyone else there. And like any respectable small town, Ilium is wary of newcomers. When I joined, they made some polite conversation, asked me where I was from, and then continued on with their lives. I am barely a blip on their radar, one of hundreds of people who have logged on, gotten their feet wet, and will likely disappear again, like tourists on Route 66 who stopped in Gascozark, Missouri to get a bite to eat.
The author Kurt Vonnegut wrote about extended family in every one of his books. He said that for humans to survive, they must have a network of people they can count on for support. Without an extended family, marriages fall apart, children are neglected, and the elderly die alone. That need for a family, Vonnegut might have said, is the most important and pressing desire we have as humans. The people of Ilium, whether they recognize it or not, have taken Vonnegut’s advice.
Today I can order food or clothes or drugs or camping gear, all from the comfort of my couch at home. Anything I need is available to me through the Internet. And now, a new commodity (at least, new to me) has become available. Family. Hundreds or thousands of Iliums exist, hidden in corners of the Internet that you’ll only find by accident. So many people, so many more than I realize, have found themselves their own community that genuinely cares about their mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, well-being.
Many might comment, “Look at these people, spending their whole lives in front of their computer screen, talking to people they will likely never meet.” It’s true, the gut reaction is that the citizens of Ilium must be lacking something. But if they prefer the chatroom, it is because physical community has consistently failed them. The Internet has stepped up and fulfilled a need that the “real world” has apparently given up on for many. A webcam, a mic, and a good connection are all they need to feel that someone cares about them. And what’s more, they truly do care.
And what’s more, they truly do care.
As technology progresses, small artificial towns like Ilium will only become more prevalent, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. In an ever-growing world, local communities may not always be enough (maybe they never were) to fulfill the desire for extended family that Vonnegut outlined in all of his writing. And chatrooms probably aren’t enough either. But no doubt, where community can grow, it will.
I’ll probably leave Ilium soon. It’s not because I don’t enjoy the company, and the conversation is always entertaining. But luckily my desire to stick around was based almost entirely in fascination. I am blessed with a community that I am physically close to.
Although, I take some small bit of comfort in the fact that if all else fails me, I can find a corner of the Internet, I can put in my hours, and at the end, there is a family waiting for me.