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Don't Fear the Network: The Internet Is Changing the Way We Communicate for the Better

Panic about the rise of social media is largely overhyped and misplaced.
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(Photo: SoleilC/Shutterstock)

(Photo: SoleilC/Shutterstock)

True leaders gone, of land and people.
We choose no kin but adopted strangers.
The family weakens by the length we travel.

—Jane's Addiction, "Three Days," 1990

It seems pretty obvious to most observers that our social networks have changed in the past few decades thanks to technology. The widespread use of cell phones, the increasing affordability of air travel, the rise of the Internet, and the advent of social media have changed the way we work, the way we live, and the way we make and maintain friendships.

For some, this is cause for concern. We are, perhaps, too wired—more attuned to events and friends thousands of miles away than to what's going on right in front of our faces, more likely to share cat videos over smartphones than to play catch in our backyards. Perhaps these technological changes are compelling us to withdraw from the physical world, promoting antisocial behavior and undermining our true relationships.

Last week, I attended a lecture on this topic by Barry Wellman at the Political Networks Conference in Montreal. Wellman is a sociologist and the director of NetLab at the University of Toronto, and has been studying the role of social networks and technology for decades.

We no longer require homes, offices, or cafes to stay in touch with people; we can do it wherever we happen to be.

As Wellman argued, panic about the rise of social media is largely overhyped and misplaced. Technology hasn’t undermined our social relationships, although it has certainly affected them.

Wellman’s research has shown that the use of social media has augmented, rather than undermined, our personal relationships: “Online communication – email, instant messaging, chat rooms, etc. – does not replace more traditional offline forms of contact – face-to-face and telephone. Instead, it adds on to them, increasing the overall volume of contact.” More specifically, people with a great deal of on-line conversations have just as many off-line conversations as those who decline to participate in the former. The Internet just increases the overall frequency of communication.

What’s more, the on-line world is not truly distinct from the off-line one. We use the Internet and social media largely to stay in touch and make plans with people we already know from face-to-face relationships. Email and social media communications aren’t better or worse than in-person ones; they’re just different. And they complement each other.

To be sure, our increasing on-line connectedness has changed our perceptions of our social world. Decades ago, our social networks were decidedly local; we primarily spoke with our neighbors and nearby friends and family members. More recently, we have become, in Wellman’s words, “glocalized,” simultaneously involved in both local and long-distance relationships. This was certainly enabled by long-distance phone service, which largely put one household in touch with another.

More recently, though, the rise of personal cell phones and social media have allowed us to stay in touch with other individuals regardless of location. This, according to Wellman, is “networked individualism.” We no longer require homes, offices, or cafes to stay in touch with people; we can do it wherever we happen to be.

Douglas Adams succinctly summed up attitudes toward new technologies when he wrote:

There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

In fact, as Wellman argues, there’s little to be afraid of, even for those of us over 35. The on-line world isn’t supplanting the off-line one; it’s enhancing it. We no longer need to lose touch with neighbors who move away or with school friends who graduate; we can keep friends for life and still make new ones.

Oh, and where are we finding the time to keep in touch with all these people? As Wellman writes:

Time spent on the Internet usually supplants time spent watching television rather than time spent on other forms of social life.

More friendships and less TV? Heaven forfend.