This spring in the sophomore-level course I teach on “Communication and Society,” we spent several weeks examining the many ways that individuals and groups are using the internet to alter the nature of community, civic engagement, and social relationships. (See reading list.)
For many college students who grew 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.
Therefore, 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 Facebook, 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, I have posted the opposing teams’ position papers. In this pane, Team Social Change squares off against Team Reinforcers. Until Tuesday, May 1, they will continue their classroom debate in the comment section of the blog. In the other blog pane, CyberOptimists square off against CyberSkeptics.
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:
nCYBER-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.
Team Social Change
Internet and Community: Enhancing Social Ties, Creating New Social Norms
Maeghan S., Whitney M., Alli B., Jessica K., Laura H., Jess S.
During its popularization in the 1990s many scholars predicted that the Internet would spur social change, but they did not know how drastically it would improve interpersonal relationships or how it would act as an important social tool. The Internet has enhanced communities by giving members new ways to stay in contact with one another and by connecting people of different backgrounds who otherwise might not have interacted. Through the continued development of the Internet and the almost infinite possibilities that it brings, we will continue to see improvements, bringing society together and promoting positive social impacts. Before reviewing the changes that have occurred thus far, it is first important to define the terms “community” and “Internet”.
What do we mean by community?
In order to define community in contemporary terms, we must think of it as existing independently from geography or physical proximity. According to the Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences, a community is “a society where people’s relations with each other are direct and personal and where a complex web of ties link people in mutual bonds of emotion and obligation” (Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences, 2007).
Definitions of community that focus on geographic location are outdated, as they ignore the technological advancements that allow individuals to contact one another from thousands of miles away. Community facilitates the formation of new relationships as well as the maintenance of existing social ties, and Internet communities allow users to choose their own community based on what they find interesting and relevant to their own lives. (Fountain, 2006)
The Rise and Changing Nature of the Internet
The Internet is a means by which people across the world send and receive information to and from one another via webpage, e-mail, or a messaging application. It was originally created to help people procure goods, services, and information, and now, most business is conducted via the Internet because it has become a reliable and convenient tool that links people and companies around the world (Myers, 2004). Yet, over the years it has also become a means by which people socialize.
Although many say that the Internet has made communication and social interaction more impersonal and distancing, it is most commonly seen as a capable medium which brings people together. The Internet, which once contained mostly information and advertisements, now consists of online dating websites, blogs, and other social networking sites that connect people from various geographic locations. People with similar interests can come together and share their thoughts over common websites on a daily basis, demonstrating the social advancements the internet is constantly making. (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2005) (Renninger, K. and Shumar, 2002)
Predictions vs. Realities
In comparison to past technological advancements in communication, the Internet has been the fastest growing. Whereas “it took 38 years for radio to get a market of at least 50 million users [and] it took television 13 years to achieve 50 million users… once it was open to the general public, it is estimated that it took just four years for the Internet to achieve 50 million users” (Elon University/Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2004). This rapid growth in popularity worried some and inspired others. When the Internet first gained widespread use, some predicted changes as radical as a complete lack of privacy and private property; others foresaw the Internet as a bringer of world peace or the downfall of society (Quitney Anderson, 2005).
Those who predicted these futures were incorrect. The Internet has caused neither the end of the world nor world peace; rather, it has simply transformed and enhanced the way in which people communicate. As DiMaggio et al (2001) argues: “An increasing body of literature suggests that the Internet enhances social ties defined in many ways, often by reinforcing existing behavior patterns.” Several studies have shown that the Internet has had a positive effect on society, including enhanced methods of education, charity work, and personal interaction.
The Internet’s Impact Across Areas of Society
Now that we have discussed the general changes that the Internet has brought upon society, we will focus on three specific areas where online capabilities have improved and promoted community involvement: distance education, online charity organizations, and university campus life.
Distance Education. The Internet has brought increased access to university and professional coursework, in many cases providing these “online” students with enhanced tools for learning. Known as “distance education,” these programs allow citizens to take classes and earn degrees without having to sit in a classroom at a designated time. It is also utilized when teachers choose to use websites to help their students to grasp certain concepts. Distance education gives people more flexibility and encourages students to take classes even when the circumstances may not be desirable. (Haythornwaite, 2002)
Distance education enhances community because more people have an opportunity to learn, thus expanding both the size and scope of such a community. The issue of class is minimized because there are no campus life costs, and the knowledge that students gain in online courses can result in more common interests among community members. (Renninger, Shumar, 2002)
According to a University of Idaho study, “Research comparing distance education to traditional face-to-face instruction indicates that teaching and studying at a distance can be as effective as traditional instruction, when the method and technologies used are appropriate to the instructional tasks, there is student-to-student interaction, and when there is timely teacher-to- student feedback” (University of Idaho, 2007). Under the right conditions, distance education could transform the way in which we learn, creating a more egalitarian system of education as well as a larger overall network of educated citizens. (Willis, 1993)
Online Charity Organizations. Many charities have begun soliciting donations online. In doing so, they promote more community involvement, boost awareness about their causes, and allow people to make monetary commitments easily and quickly. Organizations have found that charities who advertise online are more likely to get positive community responses. People donate more money, and therefore, the people who the organizations attempt to help benefit more. Helping a charity also helps communities, because when different communities work towards the same cause, they often build stronger bonds among themselves. (Roth, 2002)
Via the Internet, charities can host online auctions and even have online charity poker tournaments in which participants pay real money. The charity itself benefits while people have fun. Some organizations allow people to help out without even donating money. For example, Country Crock hosts a program in which the company donates money to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America each time an online user pledges to spend more time with their family.
Charity organizations utilize the Internet not only to fundraise, but also to foster a sense of community among people who may be facing issues they do not wish to discuss face-to-face. MTV’s Truth Campaign, dedicated to stopping smoking, allows users to share their feelings on its website with other people with similar experiences and addictions. The website connects people dealing with the same issues so that they can communicate with one another and try to help each other get better. Such is the case with cancer patient and cancer survivor sites. Campaigns such as these are an important resource for people who cannot find understanding in their regular social networks. (The Truth Campaign, 2007)
Campus Life. The Internet has grown from primarily consisting of advertisements and information storage web pages; its social networking abilities are now undeniable. On college campuses, websites like Facebook and MySpace dominate the social scene. Students link together by accepting one another as “friends,” and use these applications to get information about parties, fundraisers, and even birthday reminders. Large campuses become more accessible and communities become more closely knit. Small campuses benefit from these sites by allowing the transcendence of cliques that exist in very limited communities.
Social networking has changed the way college students interact and has facilitated the rise of new social structures, like the increased influence of opinion leaders on campuses. For example, on Facebook students can assemble “groups,” creating a virtual meeting place for students with a shared interest. The student who creates the group, for example “Community Action and Social Justice,” is usually more knowledgeable about the group’s topic and wants to find others with similar interests while sharing their knowledge with those who want to know more about their issue.
The increased presence of Internet access on college campuses has increased not only social mobility but access to scholarly information as well. With the ability to find information on thousands of topics at the click of a button, students can draw from a broader area of sources for papers, presentations, and research that aid in their scholastic achievement. Wired campuses are becoming more and more common, and the benefits of having readily available internet access are only increasing the positive impact the Internet has on college campuses. (Jayson, 2006)
Through examples of improvements of personal ties, as well as ties between communities themselves, it is clear that the internet is responsible for bringing about positive social change. Using the example of online charity organizations, we proved that the Internet has provoked more community involvement in online users. The Internet is an outlet for spreading information, and online charity organizations are just one example of how it does this. Information that Internet users would have previously found difficult to locate is now more accessible and more available to them. Also, when people get involved in organizations, via the Internet, they can find others who have the same interests as they do.
Distance education has demonstrated how the Internet has brought people together by giving more people educational opportunities. In the past, many people were not able to get an education due to various circumstances, such as geography or disability. Due to advances made by the Internet, more people are able to get an education. This has enhanced community because through distance education, people are able to share ideas with one another and form communities based on education.
Lastly, the Internet has improved campus life. Campus life is just a small sampling of society as a whole. The Internet has brought campuses together across the country. It is one example of a community coming together because of the Internet.
The Internet carries out functions society would not have otherwise had. It is now possible to communicate easily with multiple people at once, versus spending the time to contact each person separately. The Internet also spreads information quickly and allows the sending of messages to people who may not even be at their computer. Everyday, 31 billion e-mails are sent across the world (Top Ten Reviews, 2007). Communicating over the Internet has become a popular and almost necessary tool.
When all of the benefits of the Internet are closely examined, it becomes very apparent that the initial skepticism of the Internet was unjustified, and the potential benefits were unrecognized. Not only does it provide many outlets from which to retrieve information, but it enhances the feeling of community among people. The Internet provides a comfort for those who need to develop their social skills, and a place to meet new people for those who are inherently social. The Internet will continue to benefit community and will in the end, enhance our interpersonal skills and bring people closer together.
Chidambaram, Laku and Zigurs, Ilze. Our Virtual World: the Transformation of Work, Play and Life via Technology. Idea Group Publishing: United States. 2001.
Dictionary of the Social Sciences (2007). Definition of Community. Retrieved April 5, 2007, http://bitbucket.icaap.org/dict.pl.
DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W. Russel, Robinson, J. (2001). “Social Implications of the Internet”. Annual Review of Sociology, Volume 27, pg. 307-336.
Elon University/Pew Internet and American Life Project (2004). Imagining the Internet’s Quick Look at the Early History of the Internet. Retrieved April 3, 2007, from http://www.elon.edu/predictions/internethistory.aspx
Evett, Don (2007). Spam Statistics 2006. Retrieved April 19, 2007, from http://spam-filter-review.toptenreviews.com/spam-statistics.html
Feenberg, Andrew and Barney, Darin. Community in the Digital Age. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc: United States. 2004.
Jayson, S (2006, October 2). Totally wireless on campus. Retrieved April 5, 2007, from http://www.usatoday.com/life/ 2006-10-02-gennext-tech_x.htm
Pew Internet and American Life Project (2005). Social Networking Websites and Teens, Wireless Internet Access. Retrieved April 1, 2007, from http://www.pewinternet.org/reports.asp
Quitney Anderson, J. (2005). Imagining the Internet: Personalities, Predictions, Perspectives. Retrieved April 5, 2007.
Renninger, K. Ann and Shumar, Wesley. Building Virtual Communities. Cambridge University Press: United States. 2002.
Roth, Kimberlee (2002). Small Charities Find Online Giving Full of Rewards and Challenges. The Chronicle of Philanthropies. Retrieved on April 18, 2007, from http://www.philanthropy.com/jobs/2002/10/31/20021031-573724.htm
The Truth Campaign (2007). Retrieved April 11, 2007, from www.thetruth.com
University of Idaho (2007). Distance Education at a Glance. Retrieved, April 3, 2007, from http://www.uidaho.edu/eo/dist1.html.
Willis, B. (1993). Distance education: A practical guide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
Caught in our monitors: the Internet’s impact on America’s growing isolation
Kai, Rosie, Emily, Carleen, Andrew, Daryn
To the younger generation of our society, the Internet’s presence is embedded in the actions and social relations of everyday life. With each technological advance, we find ourselves becoming more and more lost in our computer screens. To many, this change signals a surge of new connections and identities with which to build community. To others, this change indicates a breakdown in our communities and our relationships. In this paper, we argue that the Internet betrays the definition of community by lending to the construction of loose and insincere social ties, which in turn limit both the quality and diversity of our real world interactions. The Internet users of today are displacing their time spent in meaningful social situations, creating false bonds and reinforcing already strongly held worldviews. Rather than becoming members of strong communities, we are facing a world of social isolation.
Community and social capital. In the most general terms, community is a set of populations “cohabiting a bounded environment with finite resources” (Kayany & Yelsma, 2000, p.217). As related to our species and our society, communities involve living, working and carrying out the basic activities of life within that bounded environment (Johnson, 1995, p.49). The image of neighbor-to-neighbor interaction is founded on the idea of social capital, or those relationships that both bridge gaps and build bonds. To some sociologists like Ferdinand Tonnies, a community provides people with “a fairly strong feeling of belonging and mutual commitment based on…shared experience and close interdependency” (Johnson, 1995, p.49). In other words, social beings rely on trust and knowledge to become personally intimate with a diverse network of beings. In the process, this social organization breeds social capital and community.
As we will discuss, the Internet does not provide grounds to build such communities, and in fact, Internet use deters the growth of social capital among members of society. Robert Putnam, in his novel Bowling Alone, asks whether “virtual social capital is itself a contradiction in terms” (Putnam, 2001, p.170). Can the virtual world provide a sense of close interdependency within a bounded territory? We argue that the quality of relationships and the diversity of interests plummet when face-to-face interactions are replaced with cyber relations that merely mimic real-life experiences. In this section, we review three key reasons that researchers suspect that the Internet might be damaging forms of community.
Social isolation and the loss of social cues. A life lived in front of a computer screen is a lonely life, according to studies done at Duke University and the University of Arizona. Research shows that most adults can only count two people with whom they can discuss important matters–such as health problems or childcare–and about a quarter of the subjects admitted they have no close confidants at all (Brashears, 2006, p.371). The study concludes that over the past two decades, the number of ties with whom people can discuss important issues is decreasing. The largest losses, the study notes, “come from the ties that bind us to community and neighborhood” (Brashears, 2006, p.371). Though the study does not directly address the Internet’s impact, it does show that correlated with the diffusion of Internet use, Americans social ties have declined.
Proponents of the Internet would argue that although people are not forming close social ties, they are forming a plethora of loose cyber ties. Online ‘play,’ such as Instant Messenger and multi-user games, allow people to interact with others even though both parties are not physically close (McMillan, 2006, p.84). But with the growth of such interactions comes a loss of social cues. After all, “many people find it easier to deal with a machine rather than interacting with each other,” so interacting with someone whose identity is concealed by icons and avatars is a way for people to avoid the inevitable pressure of face-to-face communication (McMillan, 2006, p.84).
When people “become glued to [their] computers and forgo all other human contact,” what happens when they walk out their front doors into the other, real world (McMillan, 2006, p.85)? When an Internet user relies so much on online chatting to communicate with friends and family, he or she loses the sense of emotion that comes with in-person conversation. As Thomas Wells Brignall points outs, “If the amount of time spent in face-to-face interactions among youth is shrinking, there may be significant consequences for their development of social skills and their presentation of self” (Brignall, 2005, p.337). After all, during a job interview or even a first date, one cannot insert an emoticon into conversation.
Time displacement. At the same time, one may not even have the time to go on a first date or attend a job interview. According to Norman H. Nie’s article, “The Impact of Internet Use on Sociability,” social isolation occurs because “time on the Internet is often taken at the expense of social activities and face-to-face interpersonal interactions” (Nie 2002, p.2). The more time a person sits in front of a screen, the less time he or she is spending at the arcades or on the field or at the local bar. Studies show that “like any activity, time online fundamentally competes with, rather than complements, face-to-face social time” (Nie. 2002, p.2).
For instance, Nie concluded that the results of his online time diary survey offer no evidence to support the efficiency hypothesis, the proposition that predicts a resourceful use of time when online. Instead, his research demonstrates that “on average, the more time spent on the Internet at home the less time spent with friends, family and on social activities” (Nie, 2002, p.11). Social capital and community, as built on values of trust and intimacy, do not benefit from a time replacement of interpersonal activities with online activities. Sally J. McMillan’s article, “Coming of Age with the Internet,” expresses this loss of efficient time: “Some people are so hooked up to computers that they neglect almost all other activities in life” (McMillan, 2006, p.86). This view ultimately portrays a world where people experience life through the virtual rather than the realistic, a notion that seems more fitting of a science fiction novel or film rather than contemporary society as we know it.
Cyber balkanization. On one hand, online activities provide an Internet user with opportunities to pursue an interest or a hobby in the abundance, or excess, of information present on the Web. On the other hand, these activities tend to reinforce rather than diversify one’s interests, thoughts and opinions. Reinforcement implies a strengthening rather than a reformation of existing patterns of communication (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2004, p.877).
Putnam addresses this concept of “Cyber Balkanization” in his study on America’s growing isolation. He states that “real-world interactions often force us to deal with diversity, whereas the virtual world may be more homogeneous…in terms of interest and outlook.” Physical communities force people with different interests to interact, but the Internet allows people to seek out those who share their specific interests, thus eliminating social diversity while reinforcing users’ tastes, beliefs and skills (Putnam, 2001, p.78). With the surge of Internet use comes a tendency to narrow the minds of individuals.
McMillan’s study found that while people enjoy the interactivity of the Internet, some use portal sites to customize the information that they receive. Liz, an undergraduate who participated in the study, stated, “I like that I can go to one of these sites and personalize a page for myself that will then give only the news, stock quotes, horoscope, weather, and information that is relevant to me” (McMillan, 2006, p.79). In essence, the Internet enables people to pick and choose the words and images they see while ignoring what they would prefer not to see. This is just one example of ways that the breadth of cyber information reinforces rather than restructures previously held ideas.
Examples across Specific Sectors of Society.
While previous research suggests general reasons to doubt the contribution of the Internet to community, other research suggests specific areas of society where “life online” might be leading to further social disintegration.
The perpetuation of the two party or no party system. Take, for instance, the Internet’s role in civic engagement. As society begins to “[know and care] more and more about less and less,” there is a decrease in social cohesion (Putnam, 2001, p.178). As related to politics, this signifies a disparity not only along the party lines, but also among those who feel engaged in the subject and those who do not. The amount of online information regarding the political realm gives politically- interested people the opportunity to harvest their political knowledge (Prior, 2005, p.577). This may mean that involved Democrats will visit only the liberal blogs to strengthen their preconceived beliefs while involved Republicans visit only the conservative blogs to reinforce their defined set of notions.
This use of Internet may also mean that “those who prefer nonpolitical content can more easily escape the news and therefore pick up less political information than they used to” (Prior, 2005, p.577). It becomes an issue of motivation rather than sources. The Internet, even with its wealth and variety of information, does not provide much motivation for “nonpolitical people” to read political news; rather, Web users who favor celebrity gossip to civic knowledge will avoid political sites altogether. In his article, “News vs. Entertainment,” Markus Prior notes that “despite the spectacular rise in available political information, mean levels of political knowledge in the population have essentially remained constant” (Prior, 2005, p.578). Clearly, the advent of the Internet did little to change the political identities of citizens. Instead, it promotes the existing status quo and fragmentation of the political climate in our society (Nisbet & Sheufele, 2004, p.877).
Nisbet and Sheufele point out that in terms of civic engagement, the Internet is like the magazine market, where people can subscribe to the Economist or Playboy according to personal preference. Since “humans are cognitive misers or at least satisficers,” selectivity plays a greater role in the use of the Web. People will either take advantage of the available information or they will ignore it depending on resources such as time, money and technology skills (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2004, p.879). Their research indicates that the Internet’s effects on civic engagement are modest at best. Above and beyond traditional news media use, across citizens, little data exists to support the claim that the Internet contributes to enhanced engagement in the political sphere (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2004, p.887).
For example, whereas television provides news exposure according to time slots and programs, the Internet provides such exposure at the user’s own convenience (Prior, 2005, p.579). Nonpolitical viewers of television would sit down in front of the TV at dinnertime or primetime, and at such disposal, the viewers would learn a thing or two about politics. With time displaced from televisions to computers, we are seeing an increasing political knowledge gap among interested and disinterested members of society, much to the detriment of our status as a Democratic nation.
But the issue of convenience is not limited to civic activity. The Internet is increasingly finding ways to meddle with sectors of our personal lives, like dating and friendships. When it comes to the matter of social capital, we consider whether it is a question of quantity or quantity.
Online Dating. Online dating is one of the biggest examples of the Internet reinforcing pre-existing social ties, preferences, and interests. While it is important to state the positives of online dating, it is also important to recognize the potential social ramifications. On the positive note, online dating is good for people who do not have the time to take part in the stereotypical bar scene or blind dates. However, it is also very clear, based on looking at several online dating sites, that it encourages users to only date certain types of people.
For example, there is eHarmony.com. Founded by Dr. Neil Clark Warren, the website boasts the use of a “scientifically proven” Compatibility Matching System. This system entails the use of a 436-question personality survey, what he views as part of “common sense.” “Similarities are like money in the bank. Differences are like debts you owe. It’s all right to have a few differences, as long as you have plenty of equity in your account” (Gottlieb, 2006, p.60). With this sort of focus, it is clear that online dating reinforces people staying within their own characteristics. Even a founder and proponent of online dating admitted that it’s often better to have someone who complements the other (Gottlieb, 2006, p.62). Online dating essentially rests on science and data; none of the scientists interviewed in the Gottlieb article claimed that they found a scientific explanation for the chemistry between two people actually meeting. The biggest piece of evidence towards the idea that online dating reinforces previous social categorizations is the existence of specialty dating sites, a list of which is found at the end of the article.
In a recent study, Fiore and Donath (2005), like Gottlieb, point to the tendency of people to look for other people like them. What separates Fiore and Donath’s argument from Gottlieb’s is that the two researchers look at specific similarities for which people look in others, and how certain attributes are more “bounding” than others. People who are in contact with each other are more inclined to share the same values on certain things, like marital status, desire for childhood, and smoking status. In the conclusion, Fiore and Donath say that users of online dating favored sameness more than originally predicted in almost every category at which he looked.
In another study, Fiore and Donath (2004) mention at least one potential downside in Internet dating. Citing a reference to studies in “pheromonal compatibility,” they say that the Internet cannot document things like innate personal connections. Pheromonal compatibility, in other words being attracted to someone based on smell, gives away evidence of a particular genotype that a person finds attractive.
However, just because online dating reinforces pre-existing preferences in personal characteristics doesn’t make it a bad thing. For example, according to Lynn Harris’s article on Salon.com (2006), certain lifestyles and occupations are simply not compatible with everyone except people of that type. In this sense, online dating as reinforcement of pre-existing ties and preferences is a good thing.
Coming of age on the Internet. The Internet, it can be argued, also tends to encourage a decline in social skills. Scott Caplan reported in his 2005 article that Young observed that those who spend the most time on the Internet have less social skills and thus use the Internet to interact in chatrooms and play multi-player computer games. Additionally, the cause-effect can be reversed; because people lack social skills, they spend more time in virtual interactions. However, this is still reinforcement. Because the only interaction less socially skilled people tend to have with other people takes place online, they are perpetuating their lack of in-person social skills.
Jonathan Gershuny wrote in his study “Social Leisure and Home IT” that those who use the Internet as part of their leisure activity do so via things like online gaming and browsing the web (Gershuny, 2002). Through multi-player online gaming, Gershuny says, people are able to communicate and play with people in other households. Compared to time spent on doing things like paid work, the amount of time spent online is not that much. However, something like online gaming displaces time spent doing things that would lead to social interactions. Less social interactions will lead to a reinforcement of pre-existing social preferences.
Putnam, in a chapter from Bowling Alone, mentions the evidence that mediation online “lowers the threshold for voicing opinions that, like talk radio, it may lead not to deliberation, but din” (Putnam, 2001, p173). This has two distinct possibilities. Like Professor Nisbet said in class, this sort of venue lends itself well to “flaming,” or irrational and exaggerated responses of anger with regard to someone voicing their opinions. Flaming, in relation to the internet, is “the act of sending messages that are deliberately hostile and insulting” (Wikipedia). The effect of such behavior is that people will tend to gravitate towards others with the same or at least similar opinions in order to avoid this sort of reaction. Secondly, growing up with this sort of environment may reduce a person’s judgment on what is acceptable to do in a face-to-face setting.
Social Networking. Social networking websites are also evidence of technological reinforcement of existing social networks. Although there is evidence that it increases overall social ties, the quality of those ties is often questioned. While a person will have hundreds of friends on either Facebook or MySpace, the amount of people with whom he or she actually interacts is a mere fraction of the total number of online “friends.” Additionally, the concept of a Facebook group– a body of members united by a common interest– is another depiction of the theory that the Internet only reinforces already existing interests.
Furthermore, the growing trend of “making friends at college” before even arriving on campus by way of Facebook encourages only further students to seek out peers with certain common interests, as opposed to actually meeting people in person. After deciding to go to a certain school, students will create a Facebook account and begin to make friends based on searching for people with similar interests and forging new friendships before arriving. While this is in a way a good thing, it still encourages people to make friends across existing social preferences. The downside in this is that it takes away from the diversity that could have been created by making friends in classes and in dormitory life. Myspace is the same way. People will tend to search for people with whom they share interests, thus creating a narrower and less diverse network of people than if they interacted with people in real life.
The addictive nature of Myspace and Facebook also impacts social ties among students. According to Irene McDermott (2006) in her article “I Need Myspace,” she mentions a 14-year-old girl who, every day, signs on to her Myspace account at 3pm. Throughout her conversation with McDermott, the girl repeatedly mentions how addicting the networking website is. Additionally, she speaks of how often she changes around her page, and adding new pictures. With all the time she spends on her Myspace page, she could be doing things with other people in real life.
In the most basic sense, social networking sites displace time from face-to-face interaction to keyboard communication. In John Cassidy’s article, he states that “Two-thirds of Facebook members log on at least once every twenty-four hours” (Cassidy, 2006). Spending more time than average on a website like Facebook inhibits the number of real life interactions, thus lowering the quality of social ties while hurting users’ social cues.
The Internet reinforces pre-existing social networks and dispositions. Putnam says that while social groups online contain people of all sorts of appearances and backgrounds, the fact remains that the networks created are homogenous with regard to interests and values (Putnam, 2001, p.172). Regardless of for what one uses the Internet, it takes away from time spent interacting in the real world with real people. Interacting with people in the real world is a way in which diverse social networks are created, and the increasing time that people spend on the Internet is beginning to take away from the natural diversity of social ties. Something like online dating encourages the use of scientific data to find people who are “compatible (read: alike)” without taking into account the chemistry that occurs naturally in regular social settings. The presence of specialized blogs and forums increases the chances that people will read only about things they are interested in or agree with. The fact that more time is spent on the Internet than with real people reduces meeting new people; it reduces the exchange of differing ideas, and the broadening of horizons.
While the Internet does reinforce pre-existing social ties and preferences, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As Fiore’s studies have shown, having a lot in common is key to a successful relationship or friendship. The Internet merely goes along with human nature. People will flock towards those who make them feel comfortable; what makes people feel comfortable tends to be what is familiar. The Internet is merely an extension of that comfort zone into the online world.
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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.
McDermott, Irene E. (2006, April). “I Need Myspace,” Searcher, Vol. 14 Issue 4, p22-25.
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.
Nie, N. and D.S. Hillygus. (2002). Where does internet time come from?: A reconnaissance. IT & Society, 1 (2): 1 – 20.
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. (2001). Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community. Pp 65-77, 149-179.
This spring in the sophomore-level course I teach on “Communication and Society,” we spent several weeks examining the many ways that individuals and groups are using the internet to alter the nature of community, civic engagement, and social relationships. (See reading list.)