You’ve got to take the good with the bad on the Internet, it seems.
As researchers at the Pew Internet Project and Elon University continue their work polling technology luminaries on what the Internet will look like in 10 years’ time, they have turned their attention to the social dimension of the equation.
Their latest study highlights the “relationship boom” that has blossomed from the proliferation of Web-based social-networking technologies in recent years such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, to name only a few. Those services have sprung up as more established technologies such as e-mail and instant messaging have become firmly entrenched communications channels, while a glut of new social-media tools such as Flickr and YouTube have moved ever more into the mainstream.
But do online networking technologies really make the world a more social place? And just how are they redefining what we understand as human relationships?
The researchers point out that the hand-picked survey respondents consisted of 895 people deemed technology experts, a sampling packed with industry leaders and academics who are hardly representative of the broader population.
Nevertheless, they found that the respondents expressed an overwhelming optimism about where the ascendance of Web-based social tools is taking us.
Some 85 percent of respondents to Pew’s survey agreed with a statement asserting by 2020, “I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.”
Just 14 percent agreed with the corollary, that the Internet will prove a net negative, eroding friendships, marriage or other personal relationships. One percent did not respond to that question.
But even among the optimists, many noted that all the blights on the Web — the anonymous invective, bullying, trolling and all the rest of it — will persevere, even if they are dwarfed the benefits of new methods of political organizing, a freer flow of information in repressive countries and ever-expanding social and professional networks.
“Where you stand depends on your circumstances. For me, the Net is a wonderful learning network and for some it is a lifeline and for others it is a tether to their boss or a source of harmful misinformation, disinformation, and distraction. Since when is the world starkly divided into either-or alternatives?” said technology author Howard Rheingold. “For many, life will be alienated, rushed and confusing because of their involvement online. Others will choose or will learn or be trained to cope with dangers of an always-on lifestyle.”
Among the blights the respondents identified was the tendency to pursue online communication at the expense of time spent face to face, opting for a form of interaction that generally produces shallower relationships.
Others lamented the erosion of privacy on the Web, while still other respondents fretted over the inclination to seek out like-minded communities that stifle the exchange of new or competing ideas.
Optimists, of course, were inclined to enumerate the frictionless, virtually costless channels of communication that have enabled Web users around the world to connect in ways they never could before. Some described meeting their future spouses online, others the simple joy of reconnecting with old friends.
One respondent tried to put the Internet in its place within the sweep of history, seeming to suggest that, in a few years’ time, the question about the Web’s effect on people’s social lives might not be worth asking.
“The tension between the Net and social engagement will vaporize in much the same way that thoughts about the telephone network vaporized and it came to be taken for granted,” said Robert Cannon, a senior counsel for Internet law at the Federal Communications Commission. “People do not ask if the telephone is an alienating social force. The phone is a utility supporting social life. Likewise, the Net will come to be assumed as a utility for social life.”