Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing
  You've Got Mail. Now What?
New Town Square or Home-Alone Retreat: The Jury's Still Out.

by Michele Lesie

illustrations by Hal Mayforth



DOES 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.

"'Is 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?'"

"What 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."

John's 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.

"In 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 ...)



"What 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 family.

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 persona."

Students 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.

"The 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.

THE 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.

The 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 most.

"People are saying overwhelmingly that the use of email in particular allows them to communicate more and extends their social life," Rainie says.

But 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."

Rainie 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 on.  

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