DEBATING THE INTERNET AND COMMUNITY, PART B: American University Students Examine 'Virtual' Society

This semester in the sophomore-level course I teach on "Communication and Society," we spent several weeks examining the many ways that Americans are using the Internet to alter the nature of community, civic engagement, and social relationships.

For many college students, having grown up "online," it's easy to take for granted the "virtual" society we live in, seldom pausing to consider how it might be different from more traditional forms of community life. One of the goals of the course was to encourage students to think systematically and rigorously about the many changes introduced by the Internet over the past decade.

From political blogs to online dating sites, students were introduced to the latest scholarship in the area, grouped into opposing teams, and then asked to research and write evidence-based position papers on the topic. This week, after turning in their papers, the teams squared off in a "face-to-face" class debate.

But now things get really interesting. Below the fold, in the following blog window panes, I have posted the opposing teams' position papers. In this pane, 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:

"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.


"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 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.


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The Reinforcers
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 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.
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Spector, C. (2006, August 13). Profiles In Online Dating. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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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.


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As we explain, the community is bases on higly interpersonal bonds that are reinforced by face to face and personal ways of communication. Internet has taken away from this by given people the opportunity to isolate themselves from the community. Communities are not enhanced by internet they are being disolved.

By Andres Boutsaktsian (not verified) on 01 Dec 2006 #permalink

But Andres, how do you respond to the "networked individualism" definition of community suggested by Barry Wellman and others? Under that new definition of community, the Internet would be an enhancer, rather than a negative force on community.

Andres, don't you think defining community in its traditional sense serves little purpose in an increasingly spatially dispersed world? In your paper, you define community as "marked by deep, intimate and co-cooperative ties between its members." But in an increasinlgly "glocalized" community where more people have more ties farther and farther away from where they live, in the internet may be the best and most efficient way to ensure that ties remain deep, intimate and co-operative.

By Sarah Levy (not verified) on 01 Dec 2006 #permalink

While the internet can help with maintaining ties with people who are far away, it still doesn't compare to face to face relationships. It gives the person a false sense of security and a simulation of closeness. People who rely heavily on the internet to maintain social ties with those far away, also often use this means for all their relationships and therefor still lack close personal one on one relationships.

By Gema Schaerer (not verified) on 01 Dec 2006 #permalink

Gema makes a lot of valid points. Communication over the internet does not compare to face to face relationships. When you are talking to someone over the internet the interpretations of what you're saying is left up to the reveiver and not the sender. There is a lack of social cues, such as body language or inflection in your voice. The message may end up being skewed.

By Jennifer Cumberworth (not verified) on 01 Dec 2006 #permalink

I agree with Gema and Jennifer's points. Communication on the internet is convenient and nothing more. It is easy to ask a quick question through aim or email, but using it as a way to replace romantic or therapudic relationships is a mistake. Visual and audio social cues along with physical touch are important aspects of a relationship. People can have whole conversations without even talking. This is all lost over the internet.

By Leah Moriarty (not verified) on 01 Dec 2006 #permalink

The thing is, the majority of the time people are not conducting their entire relationships over the internet. They are using it as an extension--as found in the Pew report--to other means of communication like face-to-face interaction and the telephone. It is a drastic misinterpretation to define the internet as being used without other mediums because that skews our understanding of how people are using the internet. Most people are using it to for very normal purposes--similar to the way they use the telephone. People using the internet to meet cyberfriends is rare. So, if we are talking to those we already know--and we continue to talk to them offline--convenience really isn't a bad thing. And a lack of social cues isn't the biggest deal when most internet users aren't only interacting on the internet; it's not like the average internet user sits behind his computer all day and avoids interaction with the outside world.

By Sarah Levy (not verified) on 01 Dec 2006 #permalink

I disagree with team Reinforcer in your statement that over time the internet takes away valuable time from the user that they could be spending with family and friends. For someone who is college, for example, the internet is key to communicating with family and friends. Parents can send check-up e-mails and friends from home can find out how college life is, etc. If you're far away from home, it's not taking time away from family and friends; it's adding time to the communications you have with family and friends.

Also, I agree with Sarah in the fact that most people who meet on the internet do eventually meet face-to-face or talk on the phone. It's very rare that if you meet someone online and enjoy talking to them or their perceived personality that you will not want to eventually meet them.

By Kaitlin Jacobi (not verified) on 02 Dec 2006 #permalink

I undertand what Kaitlin is trying to say about how the internet can be helpful for parents and friends to communicate with college students. However, the face to face interaction becomes broken. People start to rely on the internet as the source to communicate or to meet people with online dating and this discourages them to go out. Hence me saying that because they rely on the internet for everything they lose their ability to socialize in normal cirumstances.

By alyssa stieglitz (not verified) on 02 Dec 2006 #permalink

I disagree with Alyssa's statement. The internet does not discourage people from going our and it does not limit their ability to socialize in "normal" circumstances. The internet provides an outlet for individuals who choose not to participate in more social settings, but that is not the case for every person. In fact, The Pew Report found that net-users have a more significant ties and larger social networks than non-users, which affords them the opportunity to draw on different people for different situations.

By Elizabeth Hayes (not verified) on 02 Dec 2006 #permalink

In response to Kaitlin's comment, I believe that there is significant time displacement happening in terms of internet use. As a student, one may use the internet to keep in contact with friends and family; however, along the same lines, how many hours does that student waste on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace? Both studies (such as Hillygus and Nie, Sept. 2002) and articles (Gerhardt, July 1999) find time displacement to be a pressing issue in the question of internet use.

Also, I believe meeting a person one has spoken to via the internet can be risky. With the anonymity offered by the internet, it is becoming increasingly easier for predators to stalk other internet users under a false guise.

By Michaela McGill (not verified) on 03 Dec 2006 #permalink

I also disagree with Alyssa's comment. As Liz said, the internet gives an opportunity to those people who personally chose not to take part in social environments. It also provides a wonderful way for families and friends to stay in contact across large geographical areas.

Also, in response to Michaela's comment, one can easily argue that Facebook and MySpace are social networking sites that do not take away time from other activities but in fact re-strengthen relationships across distances and even in the same area.

By Kaitlin Jacobi (not verified) on 03 Dec 2006 #permalink

Michaela, I find the argument about time-displacement especially problematic. While we can measure how much time people are spending on the internet, we do not know that these people are "wasting" time on social networking sites (even so, it is arguable whether or not time is being wasted since social networking sites foster both sociability and information sharing). Also, the Nie study defines internet use and time spent on sociability as separate factors--when in fact, people may be socializing online.

Also, while it is understandable to fear online predators. The risk of online predators is becoming increasingly comparable to the risk of real world predators. With a more realistic internet (people socializing on sites where they display pictures, not avatars), it is actually becoming increasingly difficult and unlikely that the person you meet online is misrepresenting himself or out to get you.

By Sarah Levy (not verified) on 03 Dec 2006 #permalink

I feel like the idea of sexual predators is being completely underminded. In one study done by Barak, it was found aht 62% of adolescents reported receiving unwanted sexual emails to their personal email addresses, and 92% of those emails were from strangers. Online predators especially go towards a younger audience, because parents usually are not looking over their shoulders when they are on the internet. The majority of the time, adolescents do not meet their predators in person, but the harassment can cause psychological damage, exposing young people to explicit, innapropriate and unwanted sexual content. Many cyber optimists have commented that relationships online give the same gratification than in real relationships. If this is true, then the sexual harassment online would have no less of an effect than sexual harassment in person.

By Leah Moriarty (not verified) on 03 Dec 2006 #permalink

And that is the point--that sexual harassment online has no less, or more, of an effect than sexual harassment in person. Cyber-skeptics argue that the internet is more dangerous--and makes people more susceptible--to sexual predators. But really the internet--as it progresses and develops--is just mirroring the real world (Crossley). Like you said, no less of an effect than what goes on in person.

On those email percentages, we all get junk mail. It is likely, though, that many internet users--teens included--are becoming aware enough to recognize junk mail from real mail and deleting sexual emails before opening them. If they are not this adept, most email services now have junk mail folders and detectors--again, an example of the internet's improving quality.

By Sarah Levy (not verified) on 03 Dec 2006 #permalink

Answering to Prof. Nisbet's post I would say that yes, according to that definition it might be that there might be some possitive aspects of community enhancement in the internet, but does it allow people to met others or just bring more of the same people with same ideas and people that already know each other tooghether?
From the reading and discussions from class I believe that most of the people who take into these activities such as online dating have little success and more often than not engage in more casual relationship such as those established in online communities.

By andres boutsaktsian (not verified) on 03 Dec 2006 #permalink

Although I understand the Internet is indeed useful to keep in touch with family and existing friends for our generation and even some of our parents, How do you guys respond to the idea of the "Digital Divide" or disparites in access especially in Urban/Rural poor areas and among the elderly ?

By Jen Ustynoski (not verified) on 03 Dec 2006 #permalink

The USC Center for the Digital Future has released the results of its latest survey on the Internet and society, offering some valuable debating points for this discussion. The project surveys more than 2,000 individuals in the US each year, contacting the same households to explore how the Internet affects users and non-users.

Unfortunately, USC does not release the full results of its study, so only the press release is available. Go here:…

From what I can tell, instead of measuring direct impacts on behavior, knowledge, or attitudes like many of the studies we read in class or you include in your projects (i.e. Pew, Eveland & Dylko, Prior, Nisbet & Scheufele etc.), the survey relies mainly on self-reported *perceptions of impact.* For example, this reported finding:

Participation leads to social activism. Almost two-thirds of online community members who participate in social causes through the Internet (64.9%) say they are involved in causes that were new to them when they began participating on the Internet. And more than 40 percent (43.7%) of online community members participate more in social activism since they started in online communities.

I encourage you to check out the press release as additional material to inform your debate.

These are directed towards Team Reinforcers as a whole.
I have a couple questions about your presentation today in class.

First off, you say that the internet is an addicting thing that breaks social ties. Let's make this into a real life example: an alcoholic who does nothing but drink all day all alone. They're addicted to something AND at the same time breaking social ties. Where's the difference?

Also, you stated that the internet is often an escape for people dealing with guilt, depression, or anxiety. Is having an escape route from all those really so bad? Would it be better for those people dealing with those personal problems to go out and commit acts of violence of self-destruction?

I don't see the difference in both situations where the boundary between real society and internet society begins. Please, enlighten me.

By Kaitlin Jacobi (not verified) on 04 Dec 2006 #permalink

In response to Jen's comment, while people who live in poorer environmnents may not have as readily access to the internet, the internet is offered in public libraries, schools, and other public areas. And, as the popularity of the internet is increasing, and the cost of the internet is decreasing, more and more people are starting to have to the internet in their homes. The internet falls into the same technological revolution as other things in society such as the telephone. Not every household had a telephone in its early stages, but now nearly every home in America does. The internet is following in these same footsteps.

By Elizabeth Hayes (not verified) on 05 Dec 2006 #permalink

In response to Kaitlyn's post, there isn't a difference between an alcoholic and someone who is addicted to the Internet. Neither of them are contributing members to the community, and therefore they are hurting their community. Studies, like the one from Dr. Whang, have shown Internet users are easily addicted, and that the effects can be devastating.

Also, when we said that some people use the internet to escape from feelings of depression, we mean that. An escape. These people aren't dealing with their problems, instead they are living their lives in a fantasy world. Again, they are using the internet just how some depressed people use alcohol, and abuse doesn't work in either case.

By Sonia Herman (not verified) on 05 Dec 2006 #permalink

I definitely get the comparison of an internet addict and an alcoholic--and I'd have to agree that neither addict is a contibuting member to community.

That being said, examing the internet addicts and putting too much emphasis on this minority segment is misrepresentative of the internet and the way it is being used. Internet addicts are rare when we consider how many people are using the internet and not getting addicted (Wellman). The internet has become pretty commonplace--and while internet dystopians attack the internet's convenience for enabling isolation, this convenience factor cannot be deemed harmful as it allows people to multi-task(shopping, paying bills, etc.) and make their lives easier in an increasingly fast-paced world. In opposition to the time displacement theory, some studies (Robinson, et al) show that this convenience factor--and the ability to multi-task--actually frees up more time to spend with one's family.

By Sarah Levy (not verified) on 05 Dec 2006 #permalink

In response to the comments regarding the digital divide, one must remember that the mere existence of public libraries does not close the gap. Some people have little or no access to libraries, and libraries also have limited hours of access. Those living in rural communities may especially find it difficult to access the internet.

By Michaela McGill (not verified) on 05 Dec 2006 #permalink

Responding to the question of what is the difference between an alcoholic and some who is addicted to the internet, I would argue that based on the social impact of these addictions there wouldnt be much of a difference. However, the difference is that it has become yet another way of addiction and it is equaly as bad and as interupting in ones social life as alcoholism is.
In response to the guilt and anxiety factors, I believe that there is no better way to solve problems than the face to face interaction. One cant identify social cues and voice tones and gestures from an emoticon or a smile face or the amount of y's y happy. The argument here is that internet is taking away from these interactions, there are many other factors that make the interenet an escape such as bussy schedules and lifestyles but if one can find time to chat online, one should be able to balance this cyber obsession with real and tangible emotions.

By andres boutsaktsian (not verified) on 05 Dec 2006 #permalink

1. I agree with Michaela's comment about the digital divide. I think that it is naive for privlaged college students to say that people from lower socioeconomic classes have the same access to the internet as we do. Not all public schools have internet access- look at the public schools in D.C. Not only do these students not have internet access, but they are growing up without it and will grow to be adults without the same technilogical skills as we have. Public libraries have internet, but you have to know how to use the internet to use the internet in the libraries. People in these lower classes also have much more to worry about than trekking to a public library to check facebook.

2. In response to the comments about internet addiction. First of all, I think that alcoholics to take a part in a community. The term "town drunk" is an example. Being an alcoholic has a certain stigma that the rest of the community promotes. Everybody else in the community comes together to talk about this problem in the community and potentially help him or her. Everybody has a role in a community, whether it be positive or negative.
Internet addicts are extreme examples. But I do believe that everyone says "o.m.g. i'm soooo addicted to facebook." Although these facebook addicts are not true addicts, spending hours on facebook instead of being productive in work or social life does pose a problem. Communities stand still, new knowledge and learning grows much more slowly. Just because someone is not an internet addict does not mean that the internet is taking away time.

By Leah Moriarty (not verified) on 06 Dec 2006 #permalink

There is definitely still a digital divide, but I think over time it will close completely. It's entirely possible that eventually the internet will completely replace landline phones, and maybe even cell phones. If the people in the underpriviledged communities were are talking about have phones in their homes, they could be replaced by the internet. The internet is such an important tool that more and more people may feel that they need it to have contact with other people.

By Andrea Shedler (not verified) on 06 Dec 2006 #permalink

What I meant by the addiction comment was to establish that you say internet users lose valuable time from interacting with family and what's the difference with an alcoholic whose addiction causes them to lose time spent with family and friends?

Also, I agree with Andrea in the statement that there is a digital divide but it will soon close. There are so many people in older generations who now use e-mail and need internet access for their jobs. Just because we were born in the beginning of the internet age doesn't mean we're the only people accessing the online world. Think of how many people you know who don't have an e-mail address. Honestly, I can't think of anyone. Gradually, everyone will be online. And will that really be such a bad thing?

By Kaitlin Jacobi (not verified) on 06 Dec 2006 #permalink

I definitely do not believe that the digital divide is even remotely close to closing. Although more people may be using the internet and it is getting cheaper to log online, it seems people are forgetting about the millions of people living in complete poverty. Those living in African tribes or rural Chinese villages aren't likely to be logging on anytime soon. And those examples have little to do with age as a barrier.

Also, in regards to online dating I'd like to point out that all those online dating advocates seem to have forgotten the physical aspect that goes along with meeting new companions. Online dating seems great until you finally meet your online mate and realize there is no physical chemistry. Gottlieb's 2006 article questioned the science that goes into online dating, and I don't think one can ignore the lack of feelings going into these cyber-relationships.

By Michaela McGill (not verified) on 06 Dec 2006 #permalink

To sort of piggyback off of what Michaela was saying, we found significant research supporting our statement that the Digital Divide is not rapidly closing. Firstly, an article entitled Social Implications on the Internet (DiMaggio Et al, 2001) refers to an earlier study which defines the concept as inequalities in access to the Internet, extent of use, knowledge, quality of technical connections, and social support, ability to evaluate this quality of information and diversity of uses. Also, according to DiMaggio, Internet optimists argue the disparity will shrink over a period of time, but this has not been the trend with the diffusion of other information based technologies such as the telephone, cable television, and VCRs. In all American household, 94 percent of them have telephones; however this percent drops below 80 in low-income elderly and female-headed household below the poverty line (311). This also makes sense in terms of the Internet. And as of library and public access a single mother working two minimum wage jobs to support her family, is not likely to have the free time to go to a library (which may not be nearby) and it is unlikely she will she have extensive knowledge on how to use the Internet, which according to this article further perpetuates the Digital Divide. As for access in schools, Public Schools often cannot fund training and support staffing to keep their computers up to date and functioning (312), especially in impoverished areas, which rely heavily on free access or have none.
Additionally, DiMaggio also found significant differences between Internet access among different races and ethnicities. This can especially be seen in Hispanic populations, who suffer from a disparity due to language barriers. Finally the worldwide divide is the most notable. Over 97 percent of the worldwide access to Internet is found in developed countries. Only 5 percent of the entire worlds population had access as of 2001 (312). I think this is shocking statistic and shows that more needs to be done than merely putting computers in public libraries to narrow the Digital Divide.

By Jen Ustynoski (not verified) on 07 Dec 2006 #permalink

Team Social Change writes "Community's civic involvement may be "taking the form of e-citizenship, networked rather than group-based, hidden indoors rather than visibly outdoors."" My question is, aren't hidden communities advocating for civic involvement inherently less valuable than visible ones?

I'd also like to question Team Social Change's assertion that online discussion groups can be helpful for those seeking help. Although I agree with the research that both you and The Cyber-Optimists presented, which said online support groups can be beneficial to some, I wonder if we are putting to much support behind them. For example, online support groups can be great for cancer patients, especially those caring for them and for those with rare cancers (although I question you assertion that patients have to go online for fear of being "judged"). However, our research shows that the people that seek out support groups online are in a weakened emotional state, the same condition that can get people addicted to the internet. This can be the same thing as having your therapist's office next door to a liquor store; help is there, but so is a risk.

By Sonia Herman (not verified) on 07 Dec 2006 #permalink

In response to Sonia's comment,
1. You are taking the quote too literally. Putnam is not saying that communities are now literally hidden; read it over and you will see no reference to "hidden communities." He simply says civic involvement may be taking place indoors--which is obviously harder to measure than outdoor involvement. So, it is necessary to let go of the word hidden--or at least not to associate it with community, as Putnam uses it in reference to involvement. That being said, civic involvement online is no less valuable than visible involvement. Why would it be? I can't find an argument in what you said. But I'd be interested to hear your logic behind your assertion.

2. About online support, obviously there is the risk that people seeking help online will spiral downward, get depressed, etc. But I'd like to see research that says the majority of cancer patients are harmed rather than helped by online support groups. Ruth Picardie's memoir "Before I Say Goodbye" details the deep relationships she formed with other cancer patients over the internet. She published emails between friends she met through cancer forums--and makes it clear that these emails were often what got her through her toughest days. This also supports the finding that the content of emails has deepened over time.

By Sarah Levy (not verified) on 07 Dec 2006 #permalink

In response to Sonia's comments, people do not only turn to online support group for fear of being judged in the "real world", but they turn to these support groups because these groups are made of people like them, that can understand and empathize with what they are going through. While someone may be able to go to a therapist and talk about their problems, the online support group offer advice, support, and understanding from people who are experiencing the exact same things that they themselves are. Shaw says that the internet has the ability to forge meaningful connections and enhance community's quality of life. The anyonymity of these support groups is advantageous for this particular group of people.

By Elizabeth Hayes (not verified) on 07 Dec 2006 #permalink

I agree with Michaela that the digital divide is nowhere close to closing and this gap will not ever be fully closed because of the inequality of access to the Internet.
Also in response to Caitlin's post comparing Internet addiction to alcoholism-?? I really don't see where you are going with this comment... I would not compare a person's withdrawal from society inn relation to a serious illness in comparison to time displacement on the Internet. Also I don't think that anyone is saying that the alternative for those suffering from depression and anxiety would go out and commit random inhuman social acts but rather use their communities to facilitate and recover which is a much healthier way to cope with these feelings.

By Gema Schaerer (not verified) on 07 Dec 2006 #permalink

I have doubts with Team Social Change's assertion that Howard Dean's success in the blogosphere made him a household name. "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."

Although I think Dean's original supporters in the blogosphere eventually lead to his success, I think that without the mainstream media's support of Dean as a candidate, he wouldn't have catapulted to the top before the Iowa caucuses. In class we read a Nisbet study that said blog users are first adapters and are more interested and passionate about politics across the board. In a crowded primary field like 2004, I think that a mainstream media, desperate for an interesting story or any frontrunner, latched on to Dean because of his internet popularity. So even though blogs played a crucial role in Dean's support, they were more important because they made the media think he was a frontrunner. In the end, Dean lost, and I think this shows that blog support, even when the mainstream media follows it, can not necessarily translate to public support.

I think it would be interesting to study the relationship between blogs about Dean, polls about Dean measuring both popularity and familiarity and stories about Dean in the mainstream media. I would guess that although blogs wrote more about Dean at first, that his popularity would be more directly related to mainstream media stories, which reached out to the general public rather than a small self-selected group.

By Sonia Herman (not verified) on 08 Dec 2006 #permalink

I would absolutely agree that mainstream media deserves more credit for Howard Dean's popularity in 2003. But, didn't the media catch wind of Howard Dean's popularity from the popularity of blog sites like Daily Kos? The media's responsibility is to the public. And when the mainstream media picked up on a candidate who was appealing to the public-- especially the increasingly frustrated liberal public, like Sonia said, it latched on to the idea of Dean's popularity. So the blogs were certainly a catalyst for change in media coverage. So, while I'd agree with you that his popularity would be more directly related to mainstream media stories, a key reason why these mainstream media stories existed was political blogging.

By Sarah Levy (not verified) on 08 Dec 2006 #permalink

I agree with Sarah's comment. The idea that Howard Dean gained popularity through the internet is further proof of Team Social Change's point---the the internet is enhancing society. It shows that people can get information on any topic imaginable through the internet, including politics. The internet influenced people to follow Dean's campaign, which means the internet was influential in the process of electing the President of the US...definitely one of the most important decisions Americans have to make.

By Andrea Shedler (not verified) on 08 Dec 2006 #permalink

I agree that the internet can advance politcal careers. It has been working for Dean. However, one aspect of displacment states that the Internet offers so many choices that people will not take the time to assess them all and merely go to what they already know. This can further isolate people and because they further distance themselves from different ways of thinking.

By Jen Ustynoski (not verified) on 08 Dec 2006 #permalink