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, Team Social Change squares off against The Reinforcers. Until Friday, Dec. 8, they will continue their classroom debate in the comment section of the blog. In the other pane, the Cyber-Optimists square off against the Cyber-Skeptics. 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.
Team Social Change
The Internet: Community’s Leverage toward Social Change
Tim C., Elizabeth H., Kaitlin J., Sarah L. & Andrea S.
For each emergent technological advance since the Industrial Revolution, society has debated whether its impact on community would prove constructive or detrimental. The internet is no exception. Since the dawn of IT, people have hotly debated the impact of the internet on community. And unlike other debates in which time and study have settled the disagreements between conflicting research, it seems that new research about the internet only breeds more incompatible arguments about its impact on community. While researchers continue to disagree about its societal effects, a large body of evidence supports the notion that the internet enhances community.
In this paper, we will review what community means and demonstrate that the internet is enhancing community. First, we specifically look at the key dimension of social capital as an implication of social effect. We will then discuss key findings which reveal the internet’s ability to expand social capital and review specific examples of how community is using the internet to do this. Next, we will review evidence on the internet’s ability to forward political change. We will then turn to evidence on the relationship between the internet and relational support. This diverse body of evidence supports our assertion that the internet improves, rather than harms, community.
Criticism of the internet’s impact on community is vast and generally logical; however, these arguments are by no means insurmountable or invulnerable. Perhaps the most studied among the internet’s critics, Robert Putnam (2000) argues that the benefits of the internet will not be reaped by all because of the “digital divide.” He says that because rural minorities and similar segments will have less access to the internet, the already socially and economically wealthy will remain at an advantage (Putnam, 2000). However, because there is now greater accessibility to the internet, the socio-economic gap between those who use computers and those who do not is receding in America (Wellman et al., 2003, para. 20). This will reduce the threat of “technological apartheid at the dawn of the Information Age” (Castells, 1998, p. 93-94).
Putnam also argues that there has been a drastic decline in America’s community involvement–which the internet will only worsen. However, the fact that people are not interacting in formal organizations–like book clubs or labor unions–does not mean that they are detached from society (Wellman et al., 2003, para. 14). By way of instant messaging, emailing, blogging and participating in discussion forums, community’s civic involvement may be “taking the form of e-citizenship, networked rather than group-based, hidden indoors rather than visibly outdoors” (Wellman et al., 2003, para. 14). Putnam’s theory measures old forms of community while new types of social organization, which he fails to consider, are connecting people. This is the central weakness of most internet “dystopian” arguments (Wellman, Haase, Witte & Hampton, 2001, para. 4). They make the mistake of holding institutions fixed and thus misperceive the nature of our evolving community (Crossley & Roberts, 2004, p. 133).
What Do We Mean by Community?
Because technology has fostered such a globalized world, a re-definition of community is necessary before understanding the internet’s social implications. The nature of community under modern conditions has shifted from spatially bounded groups–door-to-door connections–to social networks and “networked individualism”–people-to-people connections (Wellman, 2001, p. 3). The most encapsulating definition of community may be: “networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging and social identity” (Wellman, Boase & Chen, 2002, p. 153).
Huysman and Wulf (2005) name community’s greatest strength as facilitating “informal sharing of knowledge among people” (p. 81) and hold that social capital is a “necessary ingredient that binds communities” (p. 82). Because community is increasingly pluralistic, social ties and capital are key resources which allow a sparsely-knit community to continue to function. The internet’s role, for informative and interpersonal communication, has been vital in allowing our increasingly “glocalized” community to flourish (Wellman, 2001, p. 3).
What Role Does the Internet Play?
As the internet has infiltrated American life, we must move from analyzing the internet as an external, foreign entity to viewing it as an integral part of everyday life. Research suggesting that the internet harms community is often “parochial” in that it treats the internet as an “isolated social phenomenon” (Wellman, Boase & Chen, 2002, p. 154). It is not an “exotic tool” (Wellman, 2006, p. 1) used by the cyber-savvy elite but rather a part of everyday life. Internet users integrate the internet into “rhythms of daily life, with life online intertwined with offline activities” (Wellman, Boase & Chen, 2002, p. 154).
The integration of the internet into everyday life holds two important implications for community. Firstly, considering “glocalization” (Wellman, 2001, p. 3) and the spatial-to-social shift in understanding community, the internet serves as a convenient and affordable way–added to the phone and face-to-face contact–to communicate with others regardless of distance. This suggests that the internet will continue to “intensify the interpersonal transformation from neighborhood groups to social networks” (Wellman, Boase & Chen, 2002, p. 154).
Secondly, as we witness the shift away from the “exoticness” (Wellman, Boase & Chen, 2002, p. 154) of the internet towards its integration into everyday life, we should expect a more candid and realistic internet (Huffaker, 2006, p. 9). As people have begun to take the internet more seriously, we have seen a shift away from pretend identities and towards real content–evidenced by the growing popularity of blogs and social networking sites (Huffaker, 2006, p. 10). Against this background of an evolving community and the ever-prevalent role of the internet, the internet has the ability to extend community–widening community’s breadth of knowledge by capitalizing social ties–and change it in subtle yet profound ways–impacting issues ranging from democracy to dating.
The Internet Builds Social Capital
One of the most advantageous effects of the internet on community has been its ability to expand social capital, allowing users to connect to and capitalize on the knowledge of their social ties with more convenience than ever (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman & Rainie, 2006). Social capital is essentially about “value gained from being a member of a network” (Huysman & Wulf, 2005, p. 82) and is often seen as the “glue that brings and holds communities together” (Huysman & Wolf, 2005, p. 82; Cohen & Prusak, 2001). A Pew Internet & American Life (2006) report found that the internet helps build social capital and maintain social ties; community can gather information via the web and they can maintain their existing social networks by way of email (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman & Rainie, p. i-ii). These capabilities are beneficial to an increasingly “glocalized” world moving towards “networked individualism” (Wellman, 2001, p. 3).
Also important for a networked society is the finding that net-users have more significant ties and larger social networks than non-users, which affords them the opportunity to draw on different people for different situations (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman & Rainie, 2006). While community often draws on its pool of core ties for important decisions, a wealth of significant or even weak ties is important for social capital, as suggested by Granovetter’s (1973) theory of the “strength of weak ties” which concludes that weak links are more important than strong ones because they serve as the crucial ties that sew the social network together (Buchanan, 2002, p. 43). These larger networks obviously afford greater access to information and consequently create more possibility for diversity (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman & Rainie, 2006, p. 15). Moveover, larger networks of weak ties may even diminish homogenous groups–bridging them together because of an “absence of pressures towards balance” among weak ties (Kilduff & Tsai, 2003, p. 55).
Emailing has proved a key role in social networking. Email increases its users’ ability to maintain social ties and draw on their support networks quite easily; for social capital purposes, it is the most capable medium which facilitates regular contact with large networks because of features like mass emailing (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman & Rainie, 2006, p. iii). Moreover, despite fears that email would “seduce people away from in-person and phone contact,” there is “media multiplexity”–which states that the more contact by email, the more contact via other mediums (Boase, Horrigan, Wellman & Rainie, 2006, p. iv).
Examples of Expanding Social Capial and Social Connectedness
These findings that the internet is capable of building social capital and fostering connectedness are not solely supported by research; they are evidenced in the way community is utilizing the internet. The positive social networking effects of connectivity are supported by the popularity and improving quality (in terms of realistic nature) of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace (Gefter, 2006, para. 11). One professor confirms that using Facebook allowed him to both stay in contact with colleagues and students and consequently draw on those contacts for information purposes (Lemeul, 2006). Examples like Facebook–where users know most of their “friends”–show the internet allowing users to seek help from their known ties–people they also know offline–but the net also allows them to gather information from the entire online community. Sites like Backfence– which fosters a growing number of community discussion and information-exchange websites–allow members of community to discuss needs (via babysitting and dating listings) and discuss local happenings and breaking news (via discussion forums).
Sites like WebMD are among the most beneficial and information rich–as they allow community to access specialized knowledge that non-users can only get from professionals. WebMD allows the internet community to get information on doctors and even diagnose their own sicknesses . This creates a more informed community–more able to spread their knowledge of even specialized topics to their social networks. Perhaps the most prominent example of community drawing on the knowledge of other members is ever-popular Wikipedia. Wikipedia–an ever-changing online dictionary written and edited by the internet community–is a prime example of community melding their knowledge together and working together towards a common goal. Don E. Descy argues that wikis foment true “e-democracy” (2006).
The Internet Promotes Social Change
The highly-connected community that the internet fostered has resulted in an increasingly interactive online dialogue. Word of mouth, a critical element in social change (Leiserowitz, 2004, p. 29), can now travel quicker than ever, and society is using this opportunity to voice their opinions and potentially change the power structure of politics. David Winston believes that the internet will enhance democracy by broadening access, fostering information and education, eliciting discussion, favoring deliberation and common decision and sparking political action (Jenkins & Thorburn, 2003, p. 136-137). Winston thinks the “four C’s” of the digital world–communications, content, collaboration and community–will be the “new arbiters of political conversation” in the internet age and that political institutions will need to adapt to the needs of an empowered and more politically active public (Jenkins & Thorburn, 2003, p. 137). Further, a diverse news media is necessary for democracy (Beers, 2006); and the internet–by way of online discussions and non-mainstream news reporting–have certainly diversified the media.
Blogs have emerged as perhaps the most effective way of expanding dialogue (Bohman, 2004). While the content of blogs range from poetry to marital problems to politics, the capability of the political blog holds potentially profound implications for political structure. As evidenced in 2003, the blogs Daily Kos and Deanforamerica.com built a platform for Howard Dean’s (temporary) success. Dean was the first presidential candidate to clearly and overtly challenge the White House and the war in Iraq (McKibben, 2006). These blogs, which backed him and publicized what he stood for and his eagerness to make a change, succeeded in making a largely unknown politician a household name. The internet’s ability to further social change is also exemplified by a less ideal situation–the success of online terrorism. Gabriel Weimann (2006) holds that “the internet has allowed the art of terrorist communication to evolve to a point where terrorist are able to control the entire communications process” (p. ix). The internet has given terrorists–a community by our definition–the platform to change the status quo. And while this specific example certainly does not benefit community, it does show how the internet’s ability to expand dialogue can enable community to change the power structure.
The Internet Builds Relational Support
While social capital and its societal and political advantages are important, we must remember that information is only one of many social resources exchanged on the internet (Wellman & Gulia, 1997). It is not only a technology; it is a social environment (Shaw, 2004, p. 4). And as a social environment, the internet has the ability to forge meaningful connections and enhance community’s quality of life (Shaw, 2004, p. 8). However, theories that doubt the internet’s ability to cultivate meaningful relationships generally argue that because the internet lacks cues such as facial expressions and body language, it is inferior to face-to-face interaction. However, this research fails to consider the benefits to the anonymity of the internet.
In different ways, lack of face-to-face interaction on the internet is advantageous for two important groups of people: those seeking help and those trying to engage in meaningful, social interaction. For those seeking help, the safe feeling afforded by the internet’s anonymity may be a major reason why they feel comfortable asking for help about personal issues. Cancer forums are so successful because cancer patients can seek advice and vent to others who can relate to them, without the fear of being judged. It is similar to sitting next to a stranger on a plane and opening up entirely; it is often said that because we will never see that stranger again, we feel safe to reveal more to them than we might to our close family.
Accordingly, research has found that people self-disclose more on the internet than they do in face-to-face interactions (Joinson, 2001; Tidwell & Walther, 2002). Lack of face-to-face interaction on the internet opens up new possibilities for fostering social relationships (McKenna & Bargh, 2000). In terms of online dating, it can overstep geographical boundaries, so people are not restricted to meeting people at their offices or in their immediate cities. And the internet may also shift importance away from appearances and superficialities–thus promoting interracial dating–and towards shared interests and personalities–making relationships more substantial. Communication via internet may be more conducive to forming interpersonal relationships than face-to-face communication (Shaw, 2004, p. 9).
New research shows that online partners like each other more (McKenna, Green & Gleason, 2002) and self-disclose more (Joinson, 2001; Tidwell & Walther, 2002) than face-to-face partners. Further, self-disclosure has been shown to increase liking–and vice versa (Collins & Miller, 1994), perhaps explaining why online dating has become so popular and implying that relationships forged via dating sites may be rather promising.
As a final testimony of the internet’s ability to be a significant social resource, a study has shown that people’s use of the internet for social purposes has deepened over time (Horrigan & Raine, 2002). The most implicative finding was that the content of emails has grown deeper and more serious; emails no longer just send “hellos” but often share worries with and seek advice from family and friends (Horrigan & Raine, 2002). This should be read as a sign that as the internet has become more integrated into everyday life and thus taken more seriously, its quality has improved, and it has become a significant social resource.
The internet, especially as it has evolved into an integral part of everyday life, has and will continue to enhance community, by expanding social capital, and change community by raising the bar on interpersonal relations and institutions like the media and government. Because of constant advances in the development of the internet, we have become an IT society. Judging from the rapid evolution of increasingly sophisticated technologies, not only will we move toward being a greater technologically advanced society–we will evolve into a more knowledgeable, better connected community. Younger generations are beginning to learn the ropes of the internet at an early age in order to properly and beneficially integrate it into everyday life. Rather than reaching back nostalgically towards a perfect participatory, neighborhood community–which arguably never existed–future research should accept the presence of the internet and concentrate on understanding how to maximize its benefits for society. Acceptance of the internet’s benefits and successes will enable us as a society to advance even further into a greater internet age. With all luck, cyber-optimists and cyber-skeptics will let go of this conceptual tug-o-war and work together–as a community–toward understanding and applying the internet for the common good.
Beers, D. (2006). The public sphere and online, independent journalism. Canadian Journal of Education, 29 (1), 109-131.
Boase, J., Horrigan, J.B., Wellman, B., & Rainie, L. Pew Internet and American Life Project (2006). The strength of internet ties.
Bohman, J. (2004). Expanding dialogue: The internet, the public sphere and prospects for transnational democracy. In Crossley, N. & Roberts, J.M. (Eds.), After Habermas: New perspectives on the public sphere (131-155). Oxford: Blackwell.
Buchanan, M. (2002). Nexus. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Castells, M. (1998). End of millennium. Oxford: Blackwell.
Cohen, D., & Prusak, L. 2001. In good company: How social capital makes organizations work. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Collins, N.L. & Miller, L.C. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 457-475.
Crossley, N., & Roberts, J.M. (Eds.). (2004). After Habermas: New perspectives on the public sphere. Oxford: Blackwell.
Descy, D.E. (2006). The wiki: True web democracy. TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning, 50 (1), 4-5.
Gefter, A. (2006, September 16). This is your space. New Scientist, 46-48.
Granovetter, M. 1973. The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1360-80.
Horrigan, J.B., & Raine, L. (2002). Emails that matter: Changing patterns of internet use over a year’s time. IT&Society,1 (1), 135-150.
Huffaker, D. (2006). Teen blogs exposed: The private lives of teens made public. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Huysman, M., & Wulf, V. (2005) The role of information technology in building and sustaining the relational base of communities. The Information Society, 21, 81-89.
Jenkins, H., & Thorburn, D. (Eds.). (2003). Democracy and new media. London: The MIT Press.
Joinson, A. N. (2001). Self-disclosure in computer-mediated communication: The role of self-awareness and visual anonymity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31,177-192.
Kilduff, M., & Tsai, W. (2003). Social networks and organizations. London: Sage Publications.
Leiserowitz, A.A. (2004). Before and after the Day After Tomorrow: A U.S. Study of Climate Change Risk Perceptions. Environment, 46 (9) 23-37.
Lemeul, J. (2006). Why I registered on Facebook. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53 (2),C.1.
McKenna, K. Y. A., & Bargh, J. A. (2000). Plan 9 from cyberspace: The implications of the Internet for personality and social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 57-75
McKenna, K. Y. A., Green, A. S., & Gleason, M. E. J. (2002). Relationship formation on the Internet: What’s the big attraction? Journal of Social Issues, 58, 9-31.
McKibben, B. (2006). The hope of the web. The New Yorker, 53 (7).
Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Shaw, L.H. (2004). Liking and self-disclosure in computer-mediated and face-to-face interactions. Retrieved November 6, 2006, from http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/~atf/dating/papers/shaw_thesis.pdf.
Tidwell, L. C. & Walther, J. B. (2002). Computer-mediated communication effects on disclosure, impressions, and interpersonal evaluations: Getting to know one another a bit at a time. Human Communication Research, 28, 317-348.
Weimann, G. (2006). Terror on the internet: The new arena, the new challenges. Washington United States Institute of Peace Press.
Wellman, B. October 30, 2001. The persistence and transformation of community: From neighborhood groups to social networks. Retrieved November 7, 2006, from http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/index.html.
Wellman, B. 2006. Connecting community: On- and Offline. Retrieved October 28, 2006 from http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/index.html.
Wellman, B., Boase, J., & Chen, W. (2002). The networked nature of community: Online and offline. IT&Society, 1 (1), 151-165.
Wellman, B., & Gulia, M. Net surfers don’t ride alone: Virtual communities as communities.
Retrieved November 6, 2006 from http://chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/netsurfers/netsurfers.pdf.
Wellman, B., Quan-Haase, A., Boase, J., Chen, W., Hampton, K., de Diaz, I.I. et al. (3 April 2003). The Social affordance of the internet for networked individualism. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 8 (3). Retrieved November 4, 2006, from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol8/issue3/wellman.html.
Wellman, B., Quan-Haase, A., Witte, J., & Hampton, K. December 2001. Does the internet increase, decrease or supplement social capital? Retrieved November 4, 2006, from http://www.urbancenter.utoronto.ca/pdfs/researchbulletins/06.pdf.
The Internet’s Inability to Foster Communities
Andres Boutsaktsian; Sonia Herman; Michaela McGill; Gema Schaerer; Alyssa Stieglitz; & Jennifer Ustynoski
The Internet has quickly become a social phenomenon that impacts and shapes the lives of many people of all different ages and backgrounds. This social impact of the Internet has had a negative effect on the lives of its users. More specifically, the effects of time displacement, dependency on the Internet, and the loss of social capital are all taking a toll on the large number of Internet users. People are trading time with friends and family for time online, they are finding themselves addicted to chat rooms and blogs, and facing both peer pressure and serious dangers in terms of internet use.
Our society is almost totally driven by the new communications technologies; the Internet and online discussion groups, web sites and blogs have distracted our citizens from the essential core of human interaction. Internet relationships have hindered interpersonal relationships. This new generation of online consumers is taking a major toll on the role of communities and what they used to mean.
Through reviewing relevant research and studies, in this paper we argue that the foundations and bonds that one creates through face-to-face relationships are absolutely essential in order to be a successful and contributory member of society; without those core relationships people lack social and developmental skills rendering them depressed and alone. Studies show the Internet boom generation lacks social support groups and ties that, when faced with individual or community problems will not have the proper healthy outlets to express and share their feelings with. These individuals are not engaged in their community and are displaced from the real world. They are creating their own version of life instead of actually experiencing it.
What Do We Mean By Community?
The Departments of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Canterbury define the aspects of communities. “Communities are marked by deep, intimate and co-cooperative ties between its members.” A major aspect of community is what researchers refer to as “social capital.” Robert Putman (2000) defines this term as: features of social organizations, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions (177).”
An individual’s place within society and their social capital is essential to their development and overall happiness. As, we will review in this paper the internet does not provide the same type of quality relationships as face-to-face interactions. Those who solely rely on it to interact with others do themselves a disservice and can experience extremely negative consequences.
Internet Use Stealing Time from Face-to-Face Interactions?
Time Displacement refers to the idea that time spent on the Internet obviously cannot be used for other, possibly more constructive activities, for instance, interacting with friends, family and participating in community events. According to a study by Norman H. Nie and D. Sunshine Hillugys (2002), “Internet use at home has a strong negative impact on the time spent with friends and family as well as time spent on social activities (2).” The article also argues that online relationships are different than face-to-face interactions and possibly not as strong, and the more time an individual spends in front of a computer the less time he/she would have to interact with friends and family. “Internet use comes disproportionately at the expense of discretionary time that could otherwise be spent in face-to-face interactions (3).
At home Internet use is the most severe in time displacement. For every hour spent on the internet at home, the survey reported, on average represented 30 less minutes spent with family. Strong communities and friendships are built on regular interaction, intimacy, face-to-face encounters, and stability. Communities have to be able to come together to solve problems for individuals or the entire community. Relationships occur through bonding and over time serve as a support system in a time of crisis.
Inequalities in Access
In addition to time displacement, other research indicates subsequent problems regarding equal access. The Internet can cause disparities in communities because of a lack of access across all social groups, especially in urban poor communities, minorities, and the elderly populations. The internet may not be very good at forging the type of strong social bonds found in face-to-face relationships. For Example, Paul DiMaggio and his co-authors (2001) reviewed several studies that point to likely disparities in which citizens have access to the internet. The article defines the Internet as “the electronic network of networks that links people and information through computers and other digital devices allowing person-to-person communications and information retrieval.” Although the Internet has become increasingly widespread since its emergence in 1982, according to DiMaggio found a disparity in Internet access among Americans. There is a lack of availability to African Americans, Hispanics, and elderly populations. Likewise this disparity occurs worldwide. As of 2000, 360 million people had access to the internet, which only represents 5 percent of the entire world’s populations. This creates inequality between demographics and does not promote community because it does not provide access to all and further rifts society.
In his book, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital Putnam examines community networks and social capital. He mostly reports on the recent decline in civic engagement within community. Putman states that there are numerous reasons why life is easier in a community based social setting. Communities which are connected and engaged fuel social trust, and “facilitate coordination and communication.” An example of this theory is the use of political outlets and their affiliations; “When economic and political negotiation is embedded in dense networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism are reduced (66).”
Putman also states that technological trends have placed a large impact on individualizing leisure time. One of the foremost disruptive and powerful tools has been the television; the problem of choice arises with such multimedia outlets. Time spent online and engaging in other solitary activities is taking away from developing community ties and social networks. “In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment” (75).
Internet Addicts: A Drain on Communities
Community is a group to which a person can feel a sense of belonging and support. Members share something with one another: a place of residence, interest, cause or belief. The rapid growth of the Internet has formed a new form of community: the online community. However, for a growing number of Internet users these communities, and the Internet in general, have turned into an addition. A study by researchers at Yonsei University in Korea found as many as 20 percent of Internet users were potentially addicted. (Whang et al., 2003) People addicted to the Internet suffer from Internet Addiction Disorder, a condition that can lead to negligence of responsibilities and other consequences. (Davis, 2002).
In a 2003 study by the Center for Internet Studies, researchers looked at the habits of twenty people who had spent more than thirty nonworking hours a week online for the past three years. The study found that those with Internet addictions often ignored family responsibilities, skipped sleep and showed up late for work, to visit chat rooms and surf the web. The consequences were severe; many suffered from marital problems, failed in school or lost a job, and accumulated debt. (Davis 2002)
The costs of Internet Addiction are obviously severe, but how do people become hooked on the web? According to a 2003 study by Purdue University Professor Scott Caplan, thirty percent of Internet users said they used the Internet as a way to escape from problems including guilt, anxiety and depression. In other words, they’re using it as a social crutch which easily becomes addictive. (Caplan, 2003) Users in this weakened emotional state prefer Internet interaction rather than face-to-face interaction because they find it less threatening and feel that they can be more open when interacting with people online (Davis, 2002).
Some symptoms of Problematic Internet Use include excessive use, losing track of time and compulsive use. A 2002 study by the researchers at the University of Lecce, Italy found the psychological problems that lead to Internet addition are similar to other types of addiction. “With Internet addiction, people not only behave differently from what society would consider ‘normal,’ they also think differently from the average individual. They have obsessive thoughts about the Internet, diminished impulse control and feel as though the Internet is their only friend.” (Pinnelli, p.1262).
People whom, in extreme cases, become addicted to the Internet retreat into it, at the expense of existing personal relationships. As Whang further explained in his 2003 study “High dependency on the Internet of the Internet addicted group was associated with interpersonal difficulties and stress in reality.” (Whang et al., p.149) Internet Addicts are unable to have the types of social interactions of line that typical users have. “Internet Addicts . . . have less chance to interact with other individuals in person and, consequently, experience an increased sense of loneliness and depressive moods.” (Whang et al., p. 149) In the end, addicts retreat from their community, and their emotional and mental well-being suffers.
As people who like anonymity communicate more online than in real life, time passes without restraint. Online there is always another link to click on where television, books and the newspaper there is an end. The World Wide Web can catch users in it, and as surfers become addicted they become a drain on society, like all addicts.
Online Connections: Loss of Social Capital
In addition to concerns regarding Internet dependency, there are also concerns about the social impact on people using online dating and social networking sites. There are specific fears and taboos tied to the act of online dating. Many view participants of online dating as either desperate or needy, and oftentimes these participants fear the perception of others. Catherine Specter (2006) writes about why these participants are keeping their online dating habits a secret from others, “Why all the secrecy? The fear of looking desperate, but that’s only because e-dating is still not a universally acceptable means of socializing” (p. E-9).
Another concern regarding online dating is the possibility of deception. The Pew Internet and American Life Project (2006) presents the possible risk of online daters encountering other misleading personalities in cyberspace. People often take advantage of the anonymity that is offered on the Internet. Lori Gottlieb (2006) questions the scientific aspect of online love connection. Sites such as eHarmony.com use science-based matching to connect people, and Gottlieb (2006) questions, “In the subjective realm of love, can cold, hard science help?” (p. 60).
Although social networking sites offer new ways to connect with other people, they also offer significant risk to social capital. The time one spends online is the time he or she does not spend with family and friends, or even creating new relationships. Pamela Gerhardt (1999) explores this concept in an article about the price of time spent on the internet, “While internet use can expand the number of relationships- intimate or not- and reduce the cost of long-distance communication, habitual use can also reduce a person’s social contacts with family members and in-person friends, experts say” (p. Z12). Besides the loss of social ties, another concern with the rise of social networking sites is the misuse of the tools they offer. The sites attract a young audience, and therefore make it possible for sexual predators to contact children by simply creating an attractive profile. (Bowley, 2006). Also, sites such as Facebook and MySpace offer a certain degree of peer pressure. John Cassidy (2006) writes of this sense of peer pressure, “Once Facebook is available, many students feel compelled to join simply because everybody else is using it” (p. 50) In today’s easily manipulated culture, social networking and online dating sites have the potential to become negative influences on society offering a sense of both danger and desperation among so many other pressures.
In just a few years the Internet has revolutionized the way many people communicate. If the Internet continues this fast-paced trend, there will likely be many more problems that affect its users. Internet users must take a step back from technology and remember what the word community once meant. The foundations of community never used to be reliant on computers with Internet connection, nor should they be in the future.
The negative effects of Internet use have become more apparent in recent years. As more people begin using the Internet on a regular basis, they also start experiencing these effects. Individuals may lose valuable time they would usually spend with friends and family. They may also begin a dependency on the Internet, which can easily turn into an unhealthy addiction. Also, there is a significant loss of social capital when a person spends time attempting to make new ties on social networking and online dating websites.
Sociologists define community as a tight-knit and intimate institution with the capability of problem solving. The Internet does not foster this concept; rather it tears apart existing communities through possible addiction and breaking social ties through displacement. If society continues to base communal interaction on Internet ties, existing communities will deteriorate and there will be no support systems, which are essential for solving individual and community-based problems. The Internet is not successful in establishing and fostering the growth of communities, and people must look beyond the computer screen to find true community.
Bowley, G. (2006, October 27). The high priestess of Internet friendship. Financial
Times. Retrieved October 30, 2006, from LexisNexis Academic Universe
Cassidy, J. (2006, May 15). ME MEDIA; How hanging out on the internet became big
business. The New Yorker, 82, 50.
Caplan, S (2003, December) Preference for online social interaction: a theory of problematic Internet use and psychosocial well being. Communication Research. Retrieved November 7, 2006 from EBSCO database.
Davis, R.A., Greenberg D.N., A Cognitive Behavioral Model of Pathological Internet Use. Computers in Human behavior. Retrieved November 7, 2006 from Sage database.
DiMaggio, Paul, Hargittai, Eszter; Neuman, Russell; Robinson, John P. (2001) Social Implications of the Internet. Annual Revire Social 27:307-36. 307-332.
Gerhardt, P. (1999, July 27). Sex, Lies & Email; Internet dating offers plenty of opportunities to meet that special someone, but therapists warn that what you see online is not always what you get. The Washington Post. p. Z12.
Gottlieb, L. (2006, March). How Do I Love Thee? The Atlantic Monthly, pp.58-70.
Hillygus D. & Nie D. (2002, September). The Impact of Internet use on Sociability:
Time-Diary Findings. IT & Society. Pp. 1-20.
Madden, M., & Lenhart, A. (2006, March 5). Online Dating. Pew Internet and American Life Project, pp. 1-35.
Pinnelli, S. (2002, March). Internet Addiction Disorder and Identity On Line: The
Educational Relationship. Informing Science. Retrieved November 9, 2006 from EBSCO database.
Putnam, R. (2001) Bowling Alone the Collapse and Revival of American Community.
Pp 65-77, 149-179.
Spector, C. (2006, August 13). Profiles In Online Dating. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Retrieved November 11, 2006, from LexisNexis Academic Universe database.
Whang, L. S. et al.(2003). Internet Over-Users’ Psychological Profiles: A Behavior
Sampling Analysis on Internet Addiction. CyberPsycology & Behavior, Retrieved November 7, 2006 from EBSCO database.