DEBATING THE INTERNET AND COMMUNITY, PART A: American University Students Examine ‘Virtual’ Society
This semester in the sophomore-level course I teach on “Communication and Society,” we spent several weeks examining the many ways that Americans are using the Internet to alter the nature of community, civic engagement, and social relationships.
For many college students, having grown up “online,” it’s easy to take for granted the “virtual” society we live in, seldom pausing to consider how it might be different from more traditional forms of community life. One of the goals of the course was to encourage students to think systematically and rigorously about the many changes introduced by the Internet over the past decade.
From political blogs to online dating sites, students were introduced to the latest scholarship in the area, grouped into opposing teams, and then asked to research and write evidence-based position papers on the topic. This week, after turning in their papers, the teams squared off in a “face-to-face” class debate.
But now things get really interesting. Below the fold, in the following blog window panes, I have posted the opposing teams’ position papers. In this pane, the Cyber-Skeptics square off against the Cyber-Optimists. Until Friday, Dec. 8, they will extend their classroom debate to the comment section of the blog. In the other pane, Team Social Change squares off against The Reinforcers. Each individual student will be evaluated on the frequency and quality of their posts, drawing on research and evidence to back up their claims.
At issue is the following:
CYBER-OPTIMISTS and TEAM SOCIAL CHANGE
“Community” is enhanced by new communication technologies such as email, online discussion groups, Web sites, and blogs. These technologies either allow for new forms of cyber-community and/or contribute to old forms of community.
CYBER-SKEPTICS and THE REINFORCERS
“Community” is hurt by new communication technologies such as email, online discussion groups, Web sites, and blogs. Community cannot exist in cyberspace, and/or these technologies detract from old forms of community.
And here is where things get even more exciting. The students invite readers from the ScienceBlogs community and other “netizens” to share their comments and participate in the debate.
The Internet: Shaping Lives and Enhancing Community
Mariel C., Jackie G., Paige M., Rigoberto S., Marissa T., & Gabriela V.
In today’s society, what creates and maintains social ties have changed as well as the way communities are built and defined. Non-conventional social ties have had increasing importance in people’s everyday lives. Since we are living in a very technologically advanced society, people often form and maintain relationships created through the internet. While some believe that the internet breaks up communities, numerous arguments have been made that the internet in fact increases social ties especially for those who may not have otherwise met in the real world. Through politics, therapy, online dating, blogs, social networking websites, and other forms of community ties, new communities are created and old ones are restored.
In this paper, after defining specifically what community is, we are going to argue how the internet plays a vital role in people’s everyday lives and brings new opportunities to everyone. We will first use a health example to show how the internet is vital to some communities. Next, online dating will prove how the internet brings people together and creates strong, lasting relationships. We will then discuss how blogs create communities which may never have been created without the internet. Lastly, we will talk about social networking and social capital as a means of enhancing community.
What is Community?
The definition of community is ever evolving. Moreover, many argue that the internet contributes significantly to the development of the modern day definition of a community because it positively influences our everyday lives and thus shapes an individual’s social capital. As stated in the Pew Internet Project:
Instead of disappearing, people’s communities are transforming: the traditional human orientation to neighborhood-and village- based groups is moving towards communities that are oriented around geographically dispersed social networks. People communicate and maneuver in these networks rather than being bound up in one solidarity community. Yet people’s networks continue to have substantial numbers of relatives and neighbors- the traditional bases of community- as well and friends and workmates (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, & Rainie, 2006).
The internet enhances communities by adding new means of connecting with existing relationships, and creating new ones. Moreover, it is a gateway that facilitates discussion and mobilization around local and global issues (Hampton & Wellman 1999). It also creates a larger space for sharing anything and everything from ideas, to feelings, and thoughts, among many others. As the Pew report describes it, “the connectedness that the internet and other media foster within social networks has real payoffs: people use the internet to seek out others in their networks of contacts when they need help”. Moreover, Wellman and Hampton state that “the internet allows people to step out of the box for both connections and information. When computer networks connect people and organizations, they are the infrastructure of social networks” (Hampton & Wellman, 1999, 289). Furthermore, William Galston argues that “it is important not to build place, or face-to-face relationships, into the definition of community. To do this would be to resolve by fiat, in the negative, the relationship between community and the Internet” (Galston, 2003, 196). By being a connective nexus all itself, the internet is a resource that binds society, opinions, and thoughts by capacitating the masses to speak to each other and share ideas, information, products and services without the miles that divide them becoming a problem.
The internet has been a powerful contribution to the transformation of communities. Millions of people use the internet to keep in touch with family and to deal with family illnesses. Seven million Americans use the internet to cope with family illnesses while sixty million Americans have used the internet to make major life decisions (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, & Rainie, 2006).
Online Therapy and Self Growth
Another example of the way that Americans have used the internet to reach collective goals and offer social support is through online patient or self help communities. Face-to-face therapy isn’t widely available in all places especially in more rural areas. Insurance companies don’t want to send therapists on a four hour drive to reach patients so setting them up online is the best option they have. The internet is a place for a new community, a group of individuals with an eating disorder, to come together to seek help. Without the internet, patients may not be able to receive the treatment that they need.
In a study by Dr. James E. Mitchell, chairman and professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, on eating disorders. He shows, as described in the Eating Disorders Review, that telemedicine is a good replacement for face-to-face therapy in places where that may be the only option because they are geographically isolated. To prove this, two groups of patients were formed, a face-to-face therapy group and an online group. After a full therapy session by both groups, the results came out almost the same. All of the patients benefited from their session and were closer to beating their eating disorders (Stein 2006). Without the online therapy, the group that used that mode of rehabilitation would never have received the help they needed.
A community is formed by a group of relationships coming together and in this case, it’s for self help treatment. Another study was done to see if online therapy could be effective as a replacement for face-to-face therapy. At the end of the trial the participants were asked to fill out a survey and many of the participants added additional comments which included: the belief that online therapy is a viable and helpful method, the advantage of not having to travel but still receiving the same care, and the strength of the relationships between patient and therapist. But one of the most important comments was as follows:
Disinhibition. This theme was discussed in the most depth. Participants described the sense of freedom they felt to express themselves online without embarrassment or fear of judgment from therapists. Many expressed the stress they typically feel in a face-to-face therapy situation and indicated that, for the first time, they were able to be completely honest and open with a therapist (Cook & Doyle, 2002, 7).
The internet gives the opportunity for people who wouldn’t normally speak up to voice their opinions. A person who is normally shy in the real world may not be as hesitant to speak their mind over the internet because less judgment is placed on opinions voiced through the internet. A theory by Noelle-Neumann called the spiral of silence describes people who tend to have minority opinions and keep silent in fear of being an outcast (Kim 2006). The anonymity of online communication allows for these types of people to speak their opinions with both those who disagree and those who agree. While the person may be a minority in his or her hometown, online, there is a community waiting of people that hold the same opinions. Through people coming together and sharing the same beliefs, communities are strengthened by a group having a common bond.
Another form of community ties found through the internet can be seen through online dating. Through these websites, people are able to fill out a detailed profile about themselves, setting specific expectations about what they are looking for in a mate. With the establishment of online dating, men and women are able to meet people who they wouldn’t necessarily meet or talk to in real life. Online dating skips the awkward first conversations and goes right to outlining what a person is searching for.
Through the internet, people are able to interact in a way called computer-mediated communication, or CMC. By CMC, people become rooted to their computers and are able to interact with others more freely and in a non-threatening environment. CMC is known as the media by which people connect with and fill in the gaps during their busy days. It can be argued that in an online relationship, people miss out on the face-to-face interaction where they can see, hear and feel the other person. However, through CMC and online dating, people are able to fill the emptiness and gaps in their lives by exchanging information with other people (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, & Rainie, 2006).
CMC is a building block for people who are about to partake in an online relationship. Through communication within the internet, all first impressions are already taken care of and out of the way. CMC has its own unique ability to build an online dating community of its own. Certain dynamics create personal relationships to be formed. For example, strong ties are already created when two people meet online because they start off with one-on-one interaction in a small group setting due to the fact that the conversation would normally be between the two people. People can also send personalized messages online to grow closer (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, & Rainie, 2006).
According to Barry Wellman in his study called “Computer Networks as Social Networks”, the internet enhances all different types of communities, including the dating community. While some feel that a relationship can not be sustainable without meeting in person, Wellman argues that online dating forces a person to meet others who share common interests and goals. In essence, it takes people away from various pursuits going on in their lives and makes them be involved in online interactions that reinforce their already existing opinions. An internet enthusiast who works with Wellman, John Perry Barlow, agrees with Wellman that the internet is a blooming social network. Along the same opinion as Wellman, Barlow argues that the internet has the ability to make online relationships last longer than when meeting in person. Relationships are sustained based on shared interests even when the people involved are residentially far away while the internet creates strong, lasting ties between people. It is also known that many e-mail and instant messaging conversations lead to many first dates that are in person (Wellman, 2001).
With the use of the internet evolving, many studies examine how it has played a role in the everyday lives of the people who use it. While it might be assumed that if people are not in restaurants or stores they are tucked away inside their home, they might be in their homes e-mailing or chatting online. The internet provides a small, intimate setting in which people can converse with others who have similar qualities. Not only does the internet begin online relationships, it can also enhance offline relationships as well (Wellman, Haase, Witte, Hampton, 2001). For example, if a man found a woman that he was interested in through a dating website and they began talking, they would already have discussed a lot of background information online about the opposite person, such as where they grew up and how many siblings they have. In relationships that are formed offline, this does not usually happen until the second or third date. Therefore, people who meet on the internet can go into their first face-to-face meeting already knowing a lot of information about the other.
While there are a wide variety of things to do on the internet, the majority of internet users utilize the internet for social reasons. In a study completed by the National Geographic Society in September of 1998, a survey was given to internet users to find out what they used the internet the most for. The findings were that e-mails are exchanged at an average rate of two hundred and seventy days per year while the second highest activity was people engaging in chat rooms (Wellman, Haase, Witte, Hampton, 2001). It can be concluded that internet users who are looking to be committed will most likely find someone through chatting or with the exchange of e-mail.
Online dating sites aren’t the only forms of enhancing relationships over the internet. Blogs are websites on which people can express themselves and their views on almost any subject they choose. While one person may begin the online conversation, responses aren’t limited and discussions are potentially ever lasting. This brings people together who have an interest in a certain topic and who are willing to talk and debate with others.
Along the same lines as online dating, blogs have created relationships between total strangers based on conversations and similar interests. They can become the source for support groups allowing each blogger to offer their advice on a similar experience. Since the early 1990’s, the creation of Web Logs or Blogs has become an essential part of the internet and is one of the main features for online users. It allows people to express how they feel in a diary type atmosphere. Users can write everyday if they choose to, giving them an opportunity to vent or discuss topics of their choice who they may not normally have a face-to-face conversation with.
“A blog is often a mixture of what is happening in a person’s life and what is happening on the web, there are as many unique types of blogs as there are people” (Fitzpatrick 1999.) Different people have a choice of what blogs they want to participate in The internet allows people to become connected, creating a strong bond. Not only do blogs allow new people to come together but it also gives people a chance who normally don’t express themselves to do so. For example, a person who is normally shy in person may become more expressive over the internet. This is a positive effect on the average person due to the creation of Blogs. “There are at lest 55 million blogs over the internet as of November 2004 and many more to come” (Schaino 2004.)
In a study conducted by Pew: “Over 27 percent of internet users read blogs a percentage that translates into over 32 million people (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, & Rainie, 2006 cited in Eveland-Dyko 2004). Ever since “The War on Terrorism” has started blogs have become stronger in ways of communication in our armed forces. “Blogs have made it much easier for soldiers or locals to dispatch first hand accounts from inside the war zone” (Schulman 2005 cited in Eveland-Dyko 2004).
There is a new discovered sense of community due to Blogs. Many Americans have been introduced to the idea of Bowling Alone, which is the theory that Americans are “lacking in people to tell their deepest, darkest secrets” to (Fountain 2006). In essence, blogs help break new social norms and bring people together to confide in each other, adding to the strength of their personal community. The local and national news media use blogs to reach out to their audience and non-audience which cater to both sides of the spectrum. Some watchers, readers, and followers answer on topics or issues that appeal to them. Some people don’t believe the news sources or outlets they are hearing from and write what they really feel on the news website or create their own to voice their opinion. (Eveland-Dyko 2004).
Communities are usually defined on how strong, and supportive they are, and what they have to offer. Inside a community you find ties that are put together socially, emotionally, personally, and ethically. Blogs have given life to these areas where there is a forum, helping people talk and discuss these issues or problems who normally don’t have anyone to discuss them with. This gives them a virtual place to escape without having to see them in person.
Social capital as defined by Robert Putnam as social networks that have value. “The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and – at least sometimes – for bystanders as well.” Social capital is the transfer of information or sharing, the social reciprocacy between people, resulting in strong feelings or emotions of bonding or connectedness (Putnam ).
The internet and computer-mediated communication or CMC as Heller and Franz refer to the communication is a life changing tool that supports the development of social capital and can even reversely effect social capital among physically based communities. With restrictions of geography without the ability of CMC, social capital depends on what Heller and Franz call the F2F factor, referring the face-to-face communication to establish strong social ties. CMC allows the restriction of geography and times zones to vanish. CMC is shown to be a driving force to connect migrants who no longer live in their home country, back to that country and the people who reside there. By connecting with their origins, reestablishes their identity and definite character. More importantly, CMC allows for migrants to meet and communicate with others who share the same origin and may also reside nearby (Heller and Franz 2004). CMC strengthens the idea of Diaspora, the idea that there is a real sustainable relationship among scattered people. (Naffiey 1999) The impact of CMC on social capital was put to the test in context of migrants in a study conducted by Hiller and Franz at the University of Calgary, Canada.
The study was conducted by observing and recording of websites, chat rooms, blogs, and guest books through the use of search engines using words as ‘away,’ ‘homecoming,’ ‘reunion’ etc. A log of the activities of these was kept over a period of six months and monitored throughout the extended period of time. The results showed supported the idea that social capital is strengthen by the use of CMC over geographic barriers as those who migrated from Atlantic Canada were more likely to have used the internet for social reference related to their place of origin. In analyzing the web site search results, that those same group of Atlantic Canadian migrants showed the greatest number of search results of websites blogs etc. in order to facilitate those ties. (Heller and Franz 2004)
In Sara Ferlander’s study, she stresses the importance of investigating the use of the internet as a source of social capital and as having the ability to. She defines community as being based upon or created by social interaction or communication. She also states that “area is no longer a crucial element in the definition of community. The existence and recognition of communities is claimed to be the core element within the concept” (Ferlander, 2003, 37-38). Her research uses this to measure solidarity and a sense of community. Her surveys found that vistors of the Café in 2001 have “significantly higher levels of social capital and feel a stronger sense of local community” than those sampled who did not (Ferlander, 341).
Ergo, while the internet may not contribute to community in a traditional definition dependent on geographic areas, the internet is able to strengthen this kind of communication. The internet is able to bring people with common interests together from all across the country allowing them to interact and communicate. This is also true for families separate by geography as well; the internet is one of the main forms of communication used in these instances.
In Stern and Dillman’s article “City and Community” (2006) they sampled 1,315 households in a rural region of the Western United States and found that increased internet usage is positively related to nominal and active levels of community participation while at the same time supporting networks that span further outside the local area. This study found that internet use not only increases people’s community ties in that part of the United States but that it helped community development and an increase in local social capital. The internet helps people connect to others both inside and outside of their geographic location while helping them solve community problems.
The internet has many outlets to help build and strengthen community such as self help websites, online dating sites, social networking sites, and blogs just to name a few. The internet allows people to come together to talk about life, a disease, family, new ideas, and even the current status of the world. “Unlike the traditional mass media, the Internet allows citizens to engage in online discussions on significant public matters with like-minded others, regardless of physical and geographical constraints” (Kim 2006).
There are many forums for people of all ages to learn something new about themselves by virtually talking to someone they would never have met otherwise. It is clear through all of these examples that there are those who need the internet to speak up about their ideas and feelings without having to literally face someone. Community isn’t simply built through geographical locations, community is something that is constantly building and expanding. The formation of new communities isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it allows those who have distanced themselves from society to find a place where they can truly belong.
Biever, Celeste. “Modern Romance.” New Scientist (2006). 5 Oct. 2006.
Boase, J., Horrigan, J. B., Wellman, B., & Rainie, L. (2006, January 25). The Strength of Internet Ties. Pew Internet and American Life Project:
Brady, Diane. “The Net is a Family Affair.” Business Week. 13 Dec. 1999.
Cook, J. E., & Doyle, C. (2002). Working Alliance in Online Therapy as Compared to Face-to-Face Therapy: Preliminary Results. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 5(2), 95-105.
Dillman, Don A., Stern, Michael J. (2006). Community Participation, Social Ties, and Use of the Internet. City and Community, 5(4), 409.
Ferlander, S. (2003). The Internet, Social Capital, and Local Community.
Fitzpatrick, B (1999, March) Live Journal of Internet Users.
Fountain, Henry. “Ideas & Trends the Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier”. New York Times, July 2, 2006
Galston, W. A. (2003, July 2). Does the Internet Strengthen Community? National Civic Review, 89(3), 193 – 202.
Hampton, Keith & Wellman, Barry (2003). Neighboring in Netville: How the Internet Supports Community and Social Capital in a Wired Suburb. City and Community 2 (4), 277-311.
Hans, Jason D., Hughes Jr, Robert. (2001). Families & Family Life, Personal computers, Internet Effects. Journal of Family Issues, 22 (6), 776-791.
“Internet Serves as ‘Social Glue'” BBC News. 26 Jan. 2006.
Jayson, Sharon. “Online Daters Report Positive Connections.” USA Today(2006). 5 Oct.
Kim, J.-Y. (2006). The impact of Internet use patterns on political engagement: A focus on online deliberation and virtual social capital. Information Polity: The International Journal of Government & Democracy in the Information Age, 11(1), p35-49.
Rainie, L (2005), Pew Internet & American Life Project (2005b) The State of Blogging
Schiano, D. (2004, May). Communication of the ACM, The Blogosphere. Pg41-46 .
Schulman, D (2005) Their War, Columbia Journalism Review 44(3) 13
Retrieved November 7, 2005
Stein, M. K. (2005, May/June). Using the Internet to Deliver Therapy and
Fighting Old Unhealthful Food Patterns. Eating Disorders Review, 16(3),1-3.
Wellman, B., & Hampton, K. (1999, November). Living Networked in a Wired World. Contemporary Sociology, 28(6).
Cyber Skepticism: How the Internet Destroys Community
Alessa Arias; Jennifer Cumberworth; David Gates; Leah Moriarty; Brittney Williams, & Allison Young
The brainchild of 1960’s technological research, the Internet has become a staple in the lives of not only just Americans, but also the global community. English journalist and author Andrew Brown says the Internet “is so big, so powerful and pointless, that for some people it is a complete substitute for life.” Brown’s words echo the concern that many individuals share over how the Internet affects the lifestyles of not just adults, but children as well.
To grasp a better understanding of how the Internet affects individual’s lives, an examination of the Internet’s history must happen. Only with understanding of the original intention of the Internet can one begin to understand that the Internet was not intended to become the mass form of communication as it is today. Once understanding of the Internet is achieved an examination of its affects on society must take place.
To understand the affects of the Internet on society, the first step is to define what society is and for the intent of this paper society is community. The definition of community is important because without it there is no basis to evaluate the affects of Internet on the community. In this case, community is defined in the traditional sense as having interpersonal interaction with individuals through such means as face-to-face communication.
With an increase in Internet usage, general knowledge of individuals is decreasing and individuals are choosing to segment themselves from society. This is because technology gives individuals the ability to select themselves out of any interaction with individuals or news media. Also, the increase has lead to time management problems for many individuals. The displacement of time while using the Internet has created issues for individuals in their social and family lives. Finally, the Internet and its’ culture of segmentation and time displacement is destroying basic human communication – social cues and personal interaction -all of this brought to you by Cold War paranoia.
The Internet was developed as part of a defense strategy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1958, President Eisenhower supported research and development of having defense computers linked to speak to one another and be self-sustained. The idea became reality in 1964, when three scientists at MIT developed a network that allowed for different computers to speak to one another. The Internet developed rapidly through the rest of the 1960s and expanded over time into commercial development (Borden 2000).
Today, college students have been found to be early adopters and heavy users of the Internet. Reports have indicated that students use the Internet for contacting professors, conducting research, working on projects with fellow students, and receiving messages from academic oriented email services. Students have also been found to use the Internet to communicate socially, for entertainment, and to stay in touch with family and friends (McMillan and Morrison 2006).
However, the issue with the Internet resides in the fact that there is a displacement of communication. Technologically mediated communication continues to replace some of the more established modes of interpersonal communication, and as such, one should consider the behavioral consequences (Millward 2000). One study found that an introverted 18-year-old was quite extroverted under the anonymity of the Internet (McMillan and Morrison 2006).
Even though the Internet did not start off as a tool for public communication, it has over time developed into what it is today – a large social sphere. However, relationships or interactions on the Internet are quite shallow when it comes community development. Strong communities have qualities that the Internet cannot offer.
What is a Good Community?
Sociologists believe even with the onset of greater mass communication, community can be defined as the idea of having a fairly strong feeling of belonging and mutual commitment based on a homogeneous culture, shared experience, and close interdependency. Meanwhile, some sociologists argue that cities are not even communities at all, but heterogeneous secular areas (Johnson 1995). However, there is a distinction to be made between traditional and modern communities.
As stated before, traditional communities are more homogeneous. Traditional communities often resist new ideas, less technologically advanced, and are less dependent on mass media. On education, traditional communities tend to place lower value on literacy and schooling and a higher value on religion (Johnson 1995).
However, modern communities tend to be culturally heterogeneous. Modern communities also have complex divisions of labor and make use of highly developed mass media and are dependent on sophisticated technology. Meanwhile, education in modern communities tends more secular than religious and there is a higher value placed on formal education (Johnson 1995).
Although both facets of community, traditional and modern, each have their positives and negatives, a determination must be made of what is the best and strongest sense of community. The idea of strong communities feature relationships that have high degree of support, emotional depth, personal intimacy, and moral commitment that remain relatively constant or reliable across time. Most commonly this can be found in such places as traditional communities, where individuals are recognizable. Whereas in modern communities, individuals can slip pass any personal contact and depend solely on non-personal communication to function in the world. This destroys the social capital within a community.
A good community contains a great deal of social capital. Social capital can be defined as the specific norms, forms of trust, aspects of knowledge, or other resources forged through social interaction that allow individuals to come together to solve problems. Without social capital a community would cease to exist, creating a vacuum in which civilization would quickly regress. Thus the question is raised, how exactly does the Internet affect the way individuals and society communicate?
Segmentation & Political Knowledge
The overload of media outlets in modern life has created a vacuum in which individuals can elect to isolate themselves from other views. The Internet allows individuals to confine their communication to people who personally share their own interests. This idea of confining communication can create a mentality of isolation from society.
The Internet and cable allow people to select themselves into a certain group. A 2005 study showed that cable and Internet users with strong preference for political news scored much higher on political knowledge test than those who disliked it. Those with access to neither cable nor Internet had the same score for strong and dislike. Among those who dislike political news, people with no cable and Internet scored the best (Prior 2005).
A 2004 study showed that regular web-log users were interested in politics and heavier on-line newsreaders. However, this did not have much prediction power as to how much political participation would happen in 2004 (Eveland 2004). Meanwhile, national newspaper reading continued to have strong influence as supported by a 2004 study. The study showed that reading the newspaper had the strongest relative influence on political knowledge. Another conclusion to the study was that reading about politics online had no influence on political knowledge (Nisbet and Scheufele 2004).
Segmentation leads to self-isolation into worlds of fantasy and deceit. This in turn makes individuals unaware of the world around them leading to unknowledgeable citizens and voters. Also, segmentation is an act of time use. As such individuals that choose isolation from the world take time away from spending it with family and friends.
Time Displacement & Communication
A Stanford University study was done to explain the differences between users and non-users of the Internet. Two hypotheses were developed; the first was the displacement hypothesis which states that time spent online takes away from the time spent interacting with the outside world. The second was the efficiency hypothesis which states that time spent online allows for tasks to be completed quicker, resulting in extra time for communal activities (Nie 2002).
The study concluded that for every hour spent online at home, there is a thirty-minute loss in time spent with family (Nie 2002). The evidence supports the statement that the Internet is having a negative impact on community and interpersonal relationships. People are allocating more time checking email accounts then socializing with friends and family. The time spent cultivating interpersonal relationships decreases, and as a result, the strength of these ties is declining.
In a study done two years earlier, the same result was found. The 2000 study showed that time displacement from the Internet reduced the time individuals spent doing other activities (Kayany and Yelsam 2000). The same result was proven in a 2005 study done on the use of instant messaging amongst college students.
In 2005 the study concluded that the more conversations one has on an instant messaging service, like America Online Instant Messaging (AIM), the less satisfied one is with other forms of communication. It is estimated that there is a 71% decrease in the use of landline communication and a 38% decrease in the use of email when individuals use AIM (Flanagin 2005). What can be seen from the 2005 study is that there is trend that traditional face-to-face and telephone communication is being replaced quickly by Internet use.
Through displacing time by communicating and interacting on the Internet, individuals are losing essential abilities to cope in the outside world. Instant messaging has allowed individuals to decrease their use of voice communication. But more importantly, instant messaging and the Internet as a whole are leading to destruction of social capital and interpersonal communication.
Internet Connections & Social Capital
In a study done by Pew Foundation, people are simply transforming their social networks into a broader geographic base (Boase, et al. 2006). In reality, this transformation includes shallower connections, transient associations, and a decline in community involvement. It is true that the traditional definitions of community are changing with the growing integration of the Internet and other communications technologies into everyday life (Ferlander 2003). Due to the rapid growth of the Internet, society is blinded to the potentially negative effects of online usage. People’s high Internet usage results in alienation and isolation, thus reducing social capital. In addition to the negative impact the Internet has on our social ties, it has now become a hunting ground for bullies, pedophiles, and other harmful behaviors decreasing social trust.
Interactions between community members involve aspects of trust and adequate knowledge of others within the social group. Community interactions traditionally involve a high degree of face-to-face interactions. Social interactions with friends and family provide a network of social support. This network provides sources of social capital people utilize in making everyday decisions (Wellman and Wortley 1990).
An important dimension of social capital and community is the idea of collective problem solving. Robert Putnam suggests that Americans are becoming more isolated due to a smaller number of substantial connections. The Internet promotes social isolation for two reasons; the creation of a socioeconomic divide and by the loss of social cues. Putnam suggests that the Internet is taking away from bridging social capital, and reinforcing already existing parties and their attitudes (Putnam 2000).
In addition, the limited amount of access to the Internet has shown to be prevalent among the rural and inner city classes. This leads to the exclusion of minority opinions and presence on the Internet. Thereby contributing to the idea of a digital divide. According to Putnam this divide is widening between the classes instead of narrowing. Evidence for this is shown by the majority opinion being reinforced through easier access to the Internet (Putnam 2000).
The second reason Putnam gives for the potentially harmful impacts of the Internet is in the context of face-to-face interactions. Face-to-face encounters provide a wealth of social cues that are severely lacking in online interactions. The speed of feedback from eye contact and other body gestures contributes to the formation of trust and a sense of reciprocity. A loss of social cues can depersonalize online encounters (Putnam 2000).
The shortage of social cues, scarcity of opinions and the amount of anonymity leads to a decrease in personal responsibility of a user’s actions while online. A majority of online interactions have little investment from their user and as a consequence receive little back from these relationships. A longitudinal study was done in which 73 households were examined during their first two years online (Kraut 1998). Within this time frame, he found that although the Internet was mainly used for communication purposes, its use was still associated with decreases in familial communication, size of their social circles, and increase feelings of loneliness (Kraut 1998). The same phenomenon was witnessed in children who become engross in the false profiles they make online (Ambrosio 2006). Some case studies have witnessed children who focus primarily on online activities and have become withdrawn from their family members. Meanwhile, they unconsciously replace their primary support system with superficial connections.
Internet pioneer William Gibson said, “Cyberspace: A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions operators, in every nation. The idea that community and relationships are strong is just what Gibson describes–“a consensual hallucination.” A good community must allow for interpersonal communication and the use of social capital, as the Putnam study cited. The 2005 study done by Prior concluded that individuals with more technological options tend to exclude themselves out of interacting with society. This behavior has lead to parts of the population segmenting themselves out and leaving holes within the community. The likely outcome of segmentation is a society that is entirely unaware of issues and the happenings in the world around them.
Nie and Flanagin both found quite similar results for Internet usage as well. The more individuals engage in Internet communication, they are more likely not to engage in communication outside that realm. Nie found that the time displacement that the Internet causes has grave effects on family relations. Flanagin cites that Internet communication is even decreasing the use of the semi-personal communication that the telephone offers. This continues the thought that interpersonal relationships that are essential for human growth are being destroyed by constant Internet usage.
In the end, the Internet and the “cyberspace” it provides leads to the destruction of good communities. This is done by individuals to isolating themselves from society, close friends and family. Good communities teach individuals social cues, how to solve problems, and overall have intimate relationships that human nature demands. The Internet does not enhance these lessons, but instead creates distraction and leaves a void in an individual’s human nature.
Borden, M. (2000, October 9). A Brief History of the Net. Fortune, 142, 34 – 35.
Eveland, W.P., Jr., & Dylko, I. (In press). Reading political blogs during the 2004 election campaign: Correlates and consequences. In M. Trymayne (Ed.), Blogging, citizenship and the future of media. New York: Routledge.
Flanagin, A.J. (2005) IM onlining: Instant messaging among college students. Communication & Research Report, 22 (3), 175 – 187.
Johnson, A.G. (1995). Community. The Blackwell dictionary of sociology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.
Kayany, J.M. & Yelsam, P. (2000). Displacement effects of online media in the socio-technical context of households. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 44 (2), 215 – 229.
McMillan, S.J., & Morrison, M. (2006). Coming of age with the internet: A qualitative exploration of how the internet has become an integral part of young people’s lives. New Media & Society, 73 – 92.
Millward, S. (2000). The relationship among internet exposure, communicator context and rurality. American Communication Journal, 3 (3), 3 -9.
Nie, N. and D.S. Hillygus. (2002). Where does internet time come from?: A reconnaissance. IT & Society, 1 (2): 1 – 20.
Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2004). Political talk as a catalyst for online citizenship. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 81 (2), 877 – 896.
Prior, M. (2005). News and entertainment: How increasing media choice widens gaps in political knowledge and turnout. American Journal of Political Science, 49, (3).
Putnam, R. (2000). Against the tide? Small groups, social movements, and the Net. In Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. (pp. 149 – 180). New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wellman, B. & Wortley S. (1990). Different strokes from different folks: Community ties and social support. American Journal of Sociology, 96, 558-588.