Is the internet anti-social?
Is the internet anti-social?
There’s a story on the wires this week about a report from some sociologists at Duke University which claims that Americans are becoming more socially isolated, with fewer close personal friends than a decade ago. A number of contributing factors were cited, but the one which seemed to catch the headline writers’ attention was the increasing impact of the internet on our lives. “Social isolation linked to web” – claimed the headlines, but here’s an extract from the university’s press release which shows this ‘link’ to be somewhat tenuous (my emphasis):
The researchers speculated that changes in communities and families, such as the increase in the number of hours that family members spend at work and the influence of Internet communication, may contribute to the decrease in the size of close-knit circles of friends and relatives.
So the researchers speculated that the internet may be one of a number of factors at play here. Not exactly a rock solid scientific correlation, but more than enough for the press to start throwing rocks at the web.
This illustrates an odd attitude amongst many in the media and society at large, that there’s something fundamentally ‘not right’ about spending time online – it’s weird, anti-social and should probably be discouraged. People who spend too much time on the internet are sad, lonely geeks.
But why does the internet have such a bad reputation? Millions of people have, for decades, spent the bulk of their free time sat in front of the TV, shoving fish-finger sandwiches into their mouths as they soak up the latest episode of whatever dreary soap opera they’re addicted to, and this is seen as normal behaviour. If you spent a lot of time reading novels, people would consider this to be a wholesome, almost intellectual pastime, even if all you ever read were Andy McNab books.
Passively consuming conventional media is seen as socially acceptable behaviour, but a lot of people still don’t ‘get’ the web and think of it as weird and antisocial. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, and those who share this attitude will be left behind in the greatest social revolution the world has ever seen.
Far from being a medium for isolated, solitary individuals, the internet is enabling people to extend their social networks in ways never before imagined. Human relationships are no longer confined to the people we happen to live close to, and while we’d be fools to discount genuine interaction with our neighbours, the web makes it easy to build relationships across all geographic and political boundaries. It’s great that we can talk to people on different continents as easily as people who live on the same street, but this is about so much more than a simple, inexpensive means to communicate over long distances.
The development of the printing press, radio and TV helped to create a media paradigm in which a handful of powerful people (the church, governments, media barons) dictated the content agenda – the few were able to exercise strict control over what was broadcast and published for consumption by the many. Those days are over.
We’re seeing a rapidly increasing number of people creating and sharing their own content through blogs, video-sharing services, podcasts and other web based mediums. Through discussion forums, wikis, and other community driven web sites people are reaching out and communicating with each other in an environment where the only thing that they’re judged on is what say. The message is clear – people are much more interested in being creative and interacting with other human beings, than sitting in front of the idiot box having bland McMedia and corporate propaganda blasted into their brains.
There is clearly still an enormous market for commercially generated content, but people are turning away from the conventional broadcast model (which can be adequately defined as “being told what to watch and when to watch it”). The web offers an unprecedented level of freedom in terms of how content can be accessed, and by contrast television, radio, newspapers and other old-economy media now seem rigid and archaic.
If you understand the scope of what the web really offers people, you’d be stupid to expect them to not want to spend more time using it. Comparing the web with broadcast and print media, or thinking of it in terms of a communications tool simply doesn’t do justice to what is happening here. The web is quite unlike anything that has existed before and it’s still in its infancy, there’s a lot more development to be done and a lot of new ideas waiting to take form.
Right now, anybody with access to the web can easily publish any kind of material, from static text to video, which can be accessed by the one billion people currently online around the world, who can in turn respond to, contribute to, improve, disprove, or otherwise manipulate and interact with that content. As the web continues to evolve, people are constantly developing increasingly sophisticated and imaginative ways to interact with each other online, for business, politics, science, art, fun and a million different reasons.
Over the past ten years the web has changed the business world in ways nobody could have predicted, and now it’s doing the same to society. If you don’t get it, if you don’t understand why people are spending so much more time online, if you still think it’s anti-social and weird, you may as well retire now and go and live a cabin in the woods, because it’s only going to get weirder from here.
tags: internet | anti-social | media | society