Websites remove the need for real life

It seems like every time you go online there’s a new website advertising the next must-have service. Some are aimed at niche interests, while others try to revolutionize the way everyday needs are met.

The other day I came across such a website, Advertising “payments in 140 characters or less,” is a Twitter add-on that links users’ Twitter and PayPal accounts, allowing users to make payments via reply Tweets. It’s a simple, easy way to settle a debt, take care of monthly bills or transfer money online, and it represents a very innovative combination of two already popular websites. For better or for worse, however, is only one part of a growing trend of the digitalization of life in general.

These days it’s hard to find an action or task that doesn’t have some kind of online alternative. Everywhere we turn, there is a new website, iPhone application or Internet service promising to do what we’re accustomed to doing in person, only quicker and with less hassle. It’s a movement all across the Internet that aims to transition those chores and everyday interactions — which normally occur face-to-face — to the web.

This trend is in no way limited to online payment options. Most stores offer online purchasing and companies like Netflix recently began offering online streaming for movie rentals, eliminating the need to wait for a DVD to be delivered to the customer’s mailbox. There are websites where online shoppers can order groceries and have them delivered straight to their front door, and, since the advent of video chat services like Skype, even personal interaction has gone digital.

These are unique and interesting services, but the effect they’re having of moving things away from the real world and putting the focus of interaction on the online world is more than a little disconcerting. I have always been an advocate of using any and all tools available to enhance productivity, but recent advances beg the question, “How much is too much?”

There are some clear benefits to online alternatives. Does the local store not have the item you want? Check online; if it’s part of a store’s catalogue, it will be there. Need to talk to a friend who lives on the other side of the country? Why use a phone when you can video chat? The Internet simply offers options that are easier than their in-person alternatives.

On one hand, this digitalization of everyday life isn’t a bad thing — especially for college students. Between balancing classes, homework and clubs, there isn’t much time to go out and do some shopping or meet up with 10 different friends around Los Angeles. Having all of those needs met by a computer with Internet access is a lifesaver; these online alternatives give students the time they need to focus on school and work.

Yet web dependence is by no means a perfect solution for students. For one thing, this is not a universal movement. Compared to the majority of Internet users, the people using the online alternatives are a small group. It is simply a unique subculture. The rest of the world — especially institutions of power and influence — still rely on in-person, physical interaction and transactions. For the electronic minority, they may just be alienating themselves.

There is also a double-edged sword that comes with rampant Internet use among college students. While the web offers time-saving solutions to every day chores, it keeps us from learning a lot of real-life skills. Paying for things online and sticking to online financial services means less physical interaction with banks and stores. Kids coming into adulthood in this digital age aren’t learning the how-to skills and rules that go hand in hand with real world interactions. In a way, this generation is just being set up to fumble through every social situation it ever encounters in the real world.

However, this could just be the way things are heading. Progress always starts small, and the status quo takes time to change. The increasing inescapability of the Internet and social media has revolutionized how people interact. However, until sites like these are the norm, what’s to be done? Ultimately, we need to arrive at an amenable middle ground. Students can’t be completely reliant on the Internet if they hope to ever learn basic life skills. Yet, giving up on the tools the Internet provides would just be ludicrous.

Take advantage of what the Internet offers, but don’t grow dependent on it. Use it to free up some time and increase productivity, but don’t let it run your life. The Internet is a tool — not a way of life. We’re in college; we should be out trying new things and exploring the world around us.

Nicholas Slayton is a freshman majoring in print journalism. His column, “A Series of Tubes,“ runs Thursdays.