When An Online Community Becomes Your Only CommunitySAt 18 years old, the world begins to change. High school ends and the real world begins, and though the strange transition into adulthood and independence happens somewhere around that time, most of us will have some connection with our families, either continuing to live under our parents' roof or maintaining a relationship with them through check-in phone calls and emails. But there are some people who disappear completely, disconnecting themselves from the lives they no longer care to live. An 18-year-old named Tom from England left his family in May, using a form letter written up by the leader of group he had joined on the internet. "Dear family," the letter said, "I need to take an indefinite amount of time away from the family, so I've moved in with a friend. Please do not contact me. Tom." The family has not heard from Tom since, and they say the internet is to blame.Kate Hilpern of The Guardian takes a fascinating look at the strange "disappearance" of 18-year-old Tom, a young man who found kindred spirits through an online community called "Freedomain Radio, which invites discussion around philosophy, politics and personal freedom." Tom would spend hours on the website, along with his girlfriend, engaging in conversations with other members and becoming a true believer in the group's philosophy that everyone has the right to choose their families, and that "ultimate personal freedom can be gained by cutting yourself off from any involuntary relationships (ie your family) and entering into completely voluntary ones (ie your new mates online)." Tom's mother, Barbara, suspects that the community is actually a cult designed to lure unhappy young people away from their families by playing up the idea that their parents are responsible for all of their problems. "We did our best to be a happy family," she says, "Knowing what I do now about the website, I think Tom was being convinced by the online community that he had been cheated because he didn't have a perfect family upbringing. But who does? We really did try our best." The community offers tips on how to escape your "Family of Origin" (FOO) by going through the "deFOO" process. The form letter that Tom left for his parents was written by the site's founder in order to buy the community member "six to 12 months before your family come looking for you and that will give you time to get used to living without them." The founder, Stefan Molyneux, denies accusations that his group is a cult, claiming that his only objective is to encourage people to disengage from unhealthy "involuntary" relationships. "It's the furthest thing from a cult," Molyneux says, "First of all, I don't charge anything for what it is I do. And cults isolate people. What I'm talking about, what I strongly suggest to people, is that they should get closer to the people they're with, and of course cults don't suggest people go to therapy to deal with their issues." Hold up, Stefan. "Cults isolate people." So wouldn't encouraging people to cut off their families using a form letter that you wrote set off some isolation alarm bells? Molyneux appears to be taking out his own issues on others, claiming that "deep down" he doesn't believe there are "any really good parents out there" and using his community members' concerns and fears as a means to twist them against their own families. Hilpern reports listening to an FDR radio program wherein Tom discusses his views on animal rights and Molyneux attempts to convince Tom that "he is the one being treated like an animal and abused by his father, and by Barbara because she is his mother and she didn't leave his father - and for even having Tom at all." Tom's family has accepted the fact that they will most likely never hear from Tom again. So what can be done about situations such as this? Is the FDR really a cult? Or does an 18-year-old man have the right to disassociate himself from his family and friends, if he feels it will bring him greater happiness? I suspect that both are true, though one wonders what Molyneux's real motivations are, in terms of building this community of isolated individuals. The internet is a strange thing; as we've seen on our own site, it has the ability to bring people together, to build real-life friendships and communities, yet as social networking increasingly becomes the preferred mode of communication in society, it's hard to tell where the boundaries have to be placed. We all show up on this site everyday behind a small picture and a stupid screen name, putting out silly comments and laughing as our online "friends" do the same. Yet most of us can turn the computer off and walk away, able to balance our real lives with our screen lives. Tom, it seems, was more comfortable as the online version of himself than the real version of himself; blending the two together, for him, was impossible, and that is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. 'You'll Never See Me Again' [The Guardian]