Voyeurs find entertainment in web misery rooms

June 30, 2000

The internet is providing a new and unintended form of entertainment for those who take pleasure in the misfortunes of others.

Cancer, addiction, divorce -whatever your problem, there will be somewhere on the web where you can "talk" to others who have been through the same. But how do you know you are connecting with genuine fellow-sufferers? The answer is you do not.

Joining an internet self-help group does not feel like walking into the studio for the Oprah Winfrey show. There are no lights or cameras, and nobody can see your face. Your words, however, can be read by anyone with an internet connection, and may remain online for years.

Roger Burrows of the Univer-sity of York calls it the "Oprah-fication" of culture, "when a daily feed of people's misery becomes a source of entertainment".

Along with colleagues at York and the University of Teesside, Mr Burrows has been studying how people use the "virtual community care" that internet self-help groups offer. They found that people who once depended on professional expertise are now placing more value on the experiences of others.

But they found that wired welfare also had a downside. Self-help groups regularly attract more "lurkers" than participants - some research suggests that lurkers may be in a 20 to one majority - and Mr Burrows suspects people are using the daily narratives of misery and despair as a source of voyeuristic entertainment.

This and other projects funded by the Economic and Social Research Council's Virtual Society programme were highlighted at a conference last week in London. The programme's director, Steve Woolgar of Brunel University, said that many of the 22 projects, involving 25 universities, had produced counterintuitive results. Several found evidence of a digital divide, with less educated groups making less effective use of the internet even when they were given equal access.

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