The Internet is a terrific invention. Without it, I would never have found myself living on top of a pizza shop in Newcastle with my close friend Danni and a wheezy arthritic old cat, having to wear heavy-duty earplugs to block out the cheerful karaoke coming from the pub next door. (‘Mr Blue Sky’ and ‘I Am the One and Only’ were popular numbers, sung very loudly and with Geordie accents.) Without the Internet, I would never have found myself being force-fed vast quantities of dubious makloubeh by a Palestinian girl from Gaza in a kitchen in northern England. I would never have made the acquaintance of Shai (who has been quite invaluable in helping me with colloquial Hebrew – now I can even ask for a drug dealer and a wide selection of other things that I am unlikely to want). Without the Internet, I doubt that I would ever have smuggled an off-duty Israeli soldier into Bethlehem and sent him home wearing a kuffiyeh. (That story has yet to be told on this blog – I’ll get to it.)
Danni and I met on a forum for disabled teenagers, which was my intro to the power of the Internet in bringing about change for the better. That forum gave me some of my best friends. It provided advice for teenagers who were struggling to cope with their condition. It even saved a few lives (literally). When Britain’s coalition government began to draft in an unjust and dangerous series of welfare reform policies, disabled and chronically ill people took to the Internet to launch a counter campaign. Many of the participants couldn’t leave their houses – some even struggled to get out of bed – but they turned to their keyboards. I was particularly moved by people’s response to Ali, a severely ill woman who shared on her personal blog that suicide would be her only choice if her benefits were revoked. She had lived on the streets once, she wrote, and she would never go back there again. Within hours, a group of disabled people had conceived of ’5 Quid for Life’. Donors contribute five pounds per month to the organisation, and the money will be distributed to people facing Ali’s trouble.
For something that has accomplished so much good in my life, the Internet is also a terrible headache. I read and comment on a variety of blogs – about Palestine/Israel, about disability, about feminism, special needs education, mental health, ecology, veganism, theology, and so on. Sometimes the comment threads dissolve into a cesspool of petty spite. The topic of discussion is abandoned in favour of having the last word or taking another commenter down a peg or two. When the topic of discussion is a family who has lost their home or a prisoner who is dying, this absence of compassion is inexcusable, and I find myself asking why I am joining in with these conversations. What does it achieve?