THE INTERNET POSE A NEW AND BETTER WAY TO BOND MORE SNUGLY
WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS? Or is the time we spend tapping messages
onto our screens depriving us of "real" life? Studies,
opinions, and prognostications abound about the Internet's
impact on society. We are more isolated--or, we are more communicative.
We neglect our families--or, we are connected to scattered
relatives more than ever before. We lack the time to meet
new people--or, we socialize with hundreds who otherwise would
have remained strangers.
the Internet bad for us' is not the right question," says
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life
Project and a recognized authority on the topic. "We keep
asking it because the impact of technology on how people spend
their time and manage relationships is an important social
issue. Some of these arguments were in place when the telephone
was new: 'Will we visit each other less often?'"
does this technology do?" is a long-standing research question
that has been grafted onto the Internet. The scary prediction
of a society that lives more online than off is pretty much
passé, and we're moving on to what experts consider
more compelling issues: effortless anonymity, fluid identity,
and social stratification.
"The Web explosion in the past six or seven years
has changed the way we think about computer technology,
and the way we think, period," says Oberlin's Daphne John,
associate professor of sociology. "The computer is no longer
just a smart typewriter or calculator; it's a device to
manage information in very new and powerful ways."
class, The Rise of the Networked Society, grew from
her experience as chair of Oberlin's Educational Technology
Committee. She and other pre-Web users were stunned at how
quickly this method of interacting and information gathering
was embraced. According to the Washington-based Pew Research
Center, roughly 55 million Americans go online every day.
grad school in the late 1980s we used the computer to analyze
statistics and email colleagues and students," John says,
"but you couldn't talk to your mom." It took commercialization
to make the Web commonplace; but not so much products as
images. Remember the TV commercial a few years ago, in which
one nun confides to another that she "can't wait to surf
the Net?" (Read: Even the cloistered are ready ...)
made the screen lovable were the graphic interfaces. The
phrase 'click on' quickly became entrenched and was so much
easier than typing in commands," John says. Suddenly, everybody
was emailing and echatting with mom and the rest of the
It didn't take
sociologists long to realize that online communication differed
from talking face-to-face or on the phone. To illustrate,
John asked her students to create an online identity. Each
selected at random a picture of a man, woman, or child and
adapted his or her email correspondence accordingly. "I
wanted my class to see how easy it is to fall into another
quickly detected that even invented personalities with similar
characteristics flocked together. Those who played at being
children interacted more comfortably with each other than
with the "adults." Women conversed more naturally with other
"women," and males with female identities found themselves
offended by misogynistic comments made by other men and
by women playing at being male.
fluidity of identity is not just about people on the Internet
pretending to be 10 years old, or famous, or beautiful,"
John says. "It's not easy to become somebody else." It may
be that your faux persona is really just a part of you,
she says, "another side that doesn't show." Other experts
agree. You cannot sustain the ruse without sacrificing a
meaningful relationship with the other party, who, by the
way, may be acting, too.
PEW PROJECT releases 15 to 20 pieces of research each year
on the Internet's impact on children, families, communities,
the workplace, schools, health care, and civic and political
life. Last May, director Rainie presented survey results
of 3,533 adults, including 1,690 Internet users.
highlights of the study suggest a landscape of ordinary
folk who have incorporated an entertaining, useful tool
into their everyday lives with no harmful trade-off. Nearly
60 percent of those who email friends and family were in
contact with loved ones more often than before, and 75 percent
said they had seen a friend or family member the previous
day. Socially active people tend to use the Internet the
are saying overwhelmingly that the use of email in particular
allows them to communicate more and extends their social
life," Rainie says.
not everyone shares his view. Norman Nie, a political science
professor and director of the Institute for the Quantitative
Study of Society at Stanford, made headlines last year when
he reported the results of a 4,100-user study: spending
five or more hours per week online cut into subjects' TV-watching,
shopping, phone, and friends-and-family time. Critics rolled
their eyes at what became Nie's signature comment in the
brouhaha: "You can't get a hug over the Internet."
and others countered that emailing is social interaction, that
nobody gets hugs over the phone, either, and if people prefer
staring at a screen filled with potentially useful information
(or a friend's email) to one aglow with sitcoms, so what? While
both Nie and Rainie have mellowed over time, the debate goes
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