A Better Connection

The Internet isn't crowding out other activities, a study finds. Instead, it's becoming woven more deeply into our lives, helping us do the same things - communicate and make decisions - in more effective ways.


Back when personal computers first started to appear, there were predictions that we were witnessing the dawning of yet another Age of Aquarius.

Maybe it was the fledgling computer industry's proximity to San Francisco that caused many early proponents to foresee the electronic Web binding us together in worldwide e-community, blurring distinctions based on nationality, ethnicity, race, sex, age or the other factors that divide us. Next thing you know, as the lyrics go, peace would guide the planets, and love would steer the stars.

Then Bill Gates became a gazillionaire and online pornography turned out to be the Web's big money-maker. That cosmic vision got a bit cloudy.

Indeed, soon enough the pendulum swung and the spread of the Web began to be seen as something nefarious, trapping our youth into lives of sullen indolence, removed from human interaction, turned into depressed zombies by the mesmerizing power of these interactive screens. To paraphrase lyrics of an earlier generation, there was trouble in River City and that starts with P and ends with C and that stands for trouble!

Not surprisingly, the truth turns out to lie somewhere in between.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that although the Web and e-mail may not have led to universal peace and understanding, neither have they driven Americans into lives of desperate solitude. Indeed, the study found that this technology has helped people expand and solidify their social networks.

Along the way it has grown to provide an increasingly important forum for seeking out information about health care, personal finance, jobs, homes and relationships. Millions of Americans are routinely using this tool to more effectively research important life decisions.

Rapid growth in the numbers of Americans using the Internet for a wide array of day-to-day chores reflects the growing power of high-speed home connections and the increasing sophistication of software used by public and private sites to conveniently provide basic services.

Which is not to say the Internet has taken over the American household.

"It adds on to other forms of communication rather than replacing them," says Barry Wellman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who was one of the authors of the study, titled "The Strength of Internet Ties." It is available at www.pewinternet.org/.

The study found that people use the Internet to maintain and enhance their contact with other people, both those that they know well and not so well.

Its unique ease of use - a message can be sent quickly like a telephone call but read at one's leisure like a letter - allows users to maintain contact with a wider variety of people than before. It also reduces the differences in contacting those who live nearby and those who live far away.

"Contrary to fears that e-mail would reduce other forms of contact, there is `media multiplicity': The more contact by e-mail, the more in-person and phone contact," the study found. "As a result, Americans are probably more in contact with members of their communities and social networks than before the advent of the Internet."

So much for the image of the pasty-faced nerd who cannot tear himself away from the computer screen, content only with his online world.

"We still have bodies and we use them if we need to borrow a cup of sugar or need help digging out of the snow," Wellman says. "So we do not do all things on the Internet. What we find is that people are always cycling from the 'net to e-mail to an instant message to a cellphone to a wired phone to face-to-face communication."

Wellman was illustrating his point, talking over the phone to answer a query that first arrived via e-mail.

"It is rare that a person only uses one means of communication," he says. "Typically, you might send someone an e-mail, then get on the phone with them, then, if you are nearby, go out for a cup of coffee."

Wellman points out that e-mail is often preferred for conveying concise information in a hurry. "You can send a quick message, just one word, without going through all the social amenities."

These findings jibe with what John Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, has found.

"It's never as good as the optimists have it nor as bad as the pessimists think," Robinson says of the impact of new technologies, whether the automobile, telephone, or computers and the Internet.

An expert on the way people use time, Robinson found that access to e-mail and the Internet has not really changed the way Americans while away their hours.

"The impact is far below what television had when it appeared on the scene," he says. "The Internet is not that disruptive a medium. It doesn't change life so much as it amplifies it."

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