For several of the play’s characters, the private, anonymous community of their internet forum gives them a critical resource in their struggle against addiction while also providing them a safe amount of distance from each other. However, Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders, members of an online crack recovery forum, discover that the safety of an internet relationship cannot replace the complex risk and reward of actual human connection. The play demonstrates how internet communities are both valuable and inherently limited.
The safety of the addiction forum suggests that, especially for vulnerable individuals, the anonymity of internet relationships provides needed security and predictability. For the forum members, connecting through the digital world provides accountability and mutual support without the fear and shame of face-to-face interactions. This dynamic is demonstrated by the forum members’ reticence to even reveal their real names to each other. Online, they are able to mutually support each other in their struggle with little risk of embarrassment or exposure, demonstrating the powerful benefit of internet communities for vulnerable people. This security seems to be particularly beneficial for people like Chutes&Ladders, who resist their addictions by keeping their lives contained, predictable, and easily controlled. He observes, “I went clean and all personality left my life […] Stay in the box. Keep things in their place. It’s a simple, effective recipe for a clean ten years.” The anonymity and safe distance of Chutes&Ladders’s online friendships help him to draw on the support of others while maintaining a completely stable life. This emotional safety contrasts with the devastating rejection he received from his son years before, the pain of which drove him back to crack after five years of sobriety. For individuals like Fountainhead, concerned about their reputations, such anonymity is also a benefit. The forum allows him to seek help and invite other people into his struggle by degrees. This again demonstrates how internet communities can lessen one’s anxiety around seeking help from others, making it easier to initially reach out.
However, though digital relationships are safer, they lack the intimacy of a flesh-and-blood personal relationship and are ultimately unable to make up for the physical presence of another human being. Although Orangutan has achieved three months of sobriety due to Haikumom’s and Chutes&Ladders’s help on the forum, the fact that her only relationships are through the internet causes her to feel disconnected, as if she doesn’t belong anywhere. She tells Chutes&Ladders, “I’m floating. I’m a cloud. My existence is one sustained out-of-body experience.” Early on in the play, she also admits, “I’m just a looker. I was never one to actually have an experience.” These words suggest that although her life is safe, it also feels empty, lacking color or firsthand experiences. When Orangutan asks Chutes&Ladders to come visit her in person—in Japan, to which she has recently moved—Chutes&Ladders is fearful and resistant, afraid that he will not live up to her expectations. He admits, “I’m a dashing concept; if you saw my flesh and blood, you’d be disappointed,” and believes that her human presence and unpredictability will disrupt his control over his life. However, she is insistent, saying that she wants relationships “with humans, not ones and zeroes” and that their online relationship is “superficial. It’s not real friendship.” Although Chutes&Ladders fears the risk of a human relationship, Orangutan declares that she wants a “challenge,” suggesting that such a risk is precisely what gives life and relationships substance. Orangutan’s desire for an in-person relationship underscores the human need to be in the presence of other people, to be physically seen and touched and known, and to have relationships that are challenging and tangible, rather than safe, anonymous, and digital.
The play suggests that such close personal connections, though frightening, ultimately make life worth living. Although internet forums can be a valuable tool, they cannot replace real human connection and in-person relationships. Although Chutes&Ladders works up the nerve to sell his car (suggesting that he does not intend to return for quite some time) and buys a plane ticket to Japan, his nervousness at meeting Orangutan in person gives him such an anxiety attack that he vomits uncontrollably both on the flight and after the plane lands, demonstrating his almost paralyzing fear. When they finally meet each other, they hug awkwardly at first but, according to the stage directions, quickly “melt into each other’s arms. A hug of basic survival and necessary friendship.” Despite Chutes&Ladders’s fears, he finds solace and comfort in Orangutan’s presence, not the rejection or disappointment that he feared. Although the depiction of their relationship ends with this scene, Orangutan declares that they have just entered “the land of the living,” implying that their lives as isolated individuals are over and they can begin living truer lives, connected to each other.
Although Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders have known each other for years through the forum, their meeting implies that both their relationship with each other and their individual lives are beginning again on the day that they meet in person. This underscores that, as powerful a tool as the internet can be to help people communicate, digital relationships cannot substitute for real human connection.
Internet Communities and Human Connection ThemeTracker
Internet Communities and Human Connection Quotes in Water by the Spoonful
ORANGUTAN: The ocean reminds me of Maine. Cold water, very quiet, fisherman, boats, the breeze. I wouldn’t try swimming. I was never one to actually have an experience.
HAIKUMOM: So unless someone gets that desperate they don’t deserve our noble company? “Suffer like me, or you ain’t legit?”
ORANGUTAN: Haikumom’s growing claws.
HAIKUMOM: Just don’t act entitled because you got so low.
ORANGUTAN: Everything in this country makes sense but me. The noodles in the soup makes sense. The woodpecker outside my window every evening? Completely logical. The girls getting out of school in their miniskirts and shy smiles? Perfectly natural. I’m floating. I’m a cloud. My existence is one sustained out-of-body experience. It doesn’t matter if I change my shoes, there’s not a pair I’ve ever been able to fill. I’m a baby in a basket on an endless river. Wherever I go I don’t make sense there.
ORANGUTAN: Maybe we could hang out and have a relationship that has very little to do with crack or addiction or history. We could watch DVDs and microwave popcorn and take walks on the waterfront while we gossip about celebrities. It could be the land of the living.
CHUTES&LADDERS: Stay in the box. Keep things in their place. It’s a simple, effective recipe for ten clean years.
ORANGUTAN: Forget simple. I want a goddamn challenge.
JOHN: I lied in my first post. I’ve been smoking crack for two years. I’ve tried quitting hundreds of times. Day two? Please, I’m in the seven-hundredth day of hell.
ODESSA: You got it out of your system. Most people lie at one time or another on the site. The good news is, two years in, there’s still time.
CHUTES&LADDERS: Live in the past, follow your ass.
ORANGUTAN: Don’t you have the slightest ambition?
CHUTES&LADDERS: Yes, and I achieve it every day: Don’t use and don’t hurt anyone. Two things I used to do on a daily basis. I don’t do them anymore. Done. Dream realized. No more dreaming.
ORANGUTAN: You mean, gasp, I’ll actually FEEL something?
CHUTES&LADDERS: What are you going to do if the address is wrong? What if the building’s been bulldozed? What if some other tenant lives there? What if the woman who gave you birth then gave you away answers the door?
ORANGUTAN: I DON’T KNOW! A concept you clearly avoid at all costs. Learn how to live, that’s all I’m goddamn trying to do!
CHUTES&LADDERS: Why are you there? Were you using with her?
CHUTES&LADDERS: Did you sell her the stuff?
FOUNTAINHEAD: No, Jesus, of course not. She gave them my number. I’m her emergency contact. Why, I have no idea, we’re practically strangers.
CHUTES&LADDERS: I got sick on the flight. Totally embarrassing. I had a panic attack as the plane landed and I started tossing into the doggy bag right next to this nice old lady. I’ve been sitting on the bathroom floor emptying my stomach. Then I had to find a toothbrush and toothpaste and mouthwash because I didn’t want to greet you with bad breath and all.