I received so many public and private comments from readers about my last post on Internet usage (see “The Current Digital Divide”–Instant Gratification Anyone?), that I started to think some more about how social networks have transformed our lives. People (yours truly included) are spending more and more time on the computer. I set a timer so I don’t spend all day in one never-ending time-suck glued to the computer either web-surfing or social networking. For discipline’s sake, I look at Facebook only once every other day or so.
I do agree with social network supporters that Facebook, LinkedIn, and a host of more specialized websites not only promote increased communication with friends and family but open new information resources– lesser-known websites, highly specialized associations, and political forums. Besides the oft-mentioned dangers of exposing the vulnerable to predators and other criminals, or bemoaning the loss of literacy or longer attention spans, there are benefits to using the social networking tools we have available.
One of the most surprising articles I read this summer (Wall Street Journal, “Could Those Hours Online Be Making Kids Nicer?”, August 16, 2011) is a case in point. Researchers have found that those who have difficulty communicating in person, especially teenagers, are more comfortable interacting via the Internet. They are not using digital communication to reach out primarily to strangers, but to interact more frequently with those they already know but may feel shy around in face-to-face situations.
The WSJ article implies that empathy and likability increase among young social networkers, even towards those less self-confident and with low self-esteem. Perhaps more significantly, Internet users are retaining their offline friendships, not replacing them. Among social outliers, the Internet can increase a sense of community and belonging.
This made me reflect on how I personally use social networking and email. I can communicate at off-times–meaning late at night–since I am a night-owl. That way the early birds can read my email or Facebook while I am still dreaming. I can send an announcement–for example, a new blog post–to friends and acquaintances with one message, not hundreds. Digital communication also saves me time –a telephone conversation is more fun, video-chatting even more of a blast–but both take much, much longer. If I am just too frazzled, an email or Facebook message is “better than nothing” and that is fundamentally the motivation behind the less personal means of saying something I really want to say. Just like snail-mail, before the invention of email, the telephone call has now graduated way up the “food-chain” to having major impact on the receiver of the call as a very personal effort to talk.
However, what if I had trouble expressing myself in person or on the phone? Would chatting in a chat room be more relaxing, more of my true feelings and opinions, than face-to-face?
Although social networking sites were created to make money, not to improve peoples’ lives, they have changed the landscape of how people relate to each other and there is no going back. Future political and social movements will undoubtedly use these tools to a significant degree difficult to imagine now. These powerful new technologies are changing the way we live, but not always in ways that everyone likes.
I am by nature an optimist, believing that the disadvantages of social networking will be filtered out over time and benefits will emerge for users who apply these tools with common sense. But in the early stages of any new technology, the buyer must beware. World-tilting technologies (think automobile, airplanes, telephone, television, computer) do not have predictable and absolute positive or negative effects. Social networking is just such a mixed bag of tricks.