This fall in the sophomore-level course I teach on “Communication and Society,” we spent several weeks examining the many ways that individuals and groups are using the internet to alter the nature of community, civic engagement, and social relationships.
For college students who grew up online, it’s easy to take for granted the virtual society we live in, seldom pausing to consider how it might be different from more traditional forms of community life. Therefore, one of the goals of the course was to encourage students to think systematically and rigorously about the many changes introduced by the internet over the past decade.
From political blogs to Facebook to online dating, students were introduced to the latest scholarship in the area, grouped into opposing teams, and then asked to research and write evidence-based position papers on the topic. Last week, after turning in their individual papers, students joined up in their teams and squared off in a face-to-face class debate.
But now things get really interesting. Below the fold, I have posted representative position papers from each of the opposing teams. Until Tuesday, December 4, students will continue their classroom debate in the comment section of the blog. In this pane, Cyberoptimists face off against Cyberskeptics. In the other blog pane, Team Social Change square off against Team Reinforcers.
Each individual student will be evaluated on the frequency and quality of their posts, drawing on research and evidence to back up their claims. (This is the third semester where AU students have engaged in a blog debate over the Internet’s impact on community. For past debates, go here and here.)
At issue is the following:
“Community” is enhanced by new communication technologies such as email, online discussion groups, Web sites, and blogs. These technologies either allow for new forms of cyber-community and/or contribute to old forms of community.
“Community” is hurt by new communication technologies such as email, online discussion groups, Web sites, and blogs. Community cannot exist in cyberspace, and/or these technologies detract from old forms of community.
The Internet: Convenience and Community
by Saverio R.
Team members: Amir R., Toniann C., Ashley K., Alex M. & Juliana S.
If the ultimate goal of communication is to facilitate the sharing, expression, and exchange of ideas among individuals, then the Internet is the ultimate medium for this process. Humanity’s insatiable pursuit of innovation and achievement has led to an abundance of different technological innovations that over time have transformed the status quo of societies all over the world. The Internet is the latest, perhaps most transformative, example of this natural propensity to reform and modernize. Unlike previous methods of communication such as the telegraph, radio, and television–which were transformative in their own right–the adoption of the Internet has been so swift that life without it is hard to imagine. Evidence of the rapid diffusion of the Internet can be found in the fact that “It took 38 years for radio to get a market of at least 50 million users; [and] it took television 13 years…[but] once it was open to the general public, it is estimated that it took just four years for the Internet to achieve 50 million users” (Elon University/Pew Internet and American Life, 2004).
The Internet also allows for greater possibilities than other past forms of communication, giving new meaning to the phrase, “having the world at your fingertips.” With a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse, an individual with Internet access can perform important research, get updated on the latest news, connect with millions of other users all over the world, and obtain virtually any kind of information desired. As is the case with other forms of information technology, there are drawbacks to the Internet, but these are nowhere near strong enough to deny the fact that the Internet has positively transformed and enhanced the idea of a “community” while serving as an accessible and convenient means for communication. In order to sufficiently prove this claim, the term “community” must be concretely defined and analyzed in the context of a revised, modern version of the traditional definition.
What is Community?
It is crucial to break free from the constraints of the traditional definition of a community, which defines it as an entity bounded by geographical area. A community is not simply “a group of people living together in one place,” as the AskOxford online dictionary defines the term; this definition equates a community with the term “neighborhood,” but is not entirely accurate since not all people who live in one place share the same interests and consider themselves part of a community (Sosnick, Dowd, & Fournier, 2006).
Instead, a more suitable definition of community is one that transcends the outdated restrictions inherent in definitions that bind the term “community” to a specific physical area. Therefore, a more functional and appropriate definition of community takes into consideration that more so than physical location, a community consists of individuals with shared/common interests or values who willfully and consistently communicate with each other. Rogers and Chen (2005) define a community as “a group of individuals with a common interest or a shared purpose, whose interactions are governed by policies in the form of rules, rituals, or protocols; [and] who have ongoing and persistent interactions…” Internet communities bring people together with common interests (more so than can be done in a non-virtual setting), are often self-moderating, and provide a low-cost, efficient way of communicating with others online through email, instant messaging, or video-chatting; therefore, an online community fulfills all of these requirements and in fact expands upon and enhances the ability of an individual to create and maintain social capital.
A modern definition of community is more functional because it takes into account that an online community is just as valid as a traditional community with geography being the main determining factor. Communities do exist online and more people are simply using electronic communication “to support and mediate social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness” (Rogers and Chen, 2005).
The sociologist Barry Wellman puts the idea of a “network society” into perspective when he says that “it is the sociable and supportive aspect of interaction that defines community and not the local space in which interaction may take place” (Hampton & Wellman, 1999). Wellman also points out that virtual/network communities have “introduced new methods to be used in maintaining relationships with members of traditional communities…and with members of new electronic communities” (Hampton & Wellman, 1999). With the theoretical foundations established, it is now possible to use the specific examples of blogs, social networking sites, and online support groups to explore how the Internet has enhanced community.
Blogs: Facilitating the Two-Way Flow of Information
The advent of “web logs,” blogs for short, provides a strong empirical basis of the positive effects the Internet has had not only on community, but on society as a whole. These easy-to-create-and-maintain online diaries facilitate the flow of two-way communication in a way that other mediums cannot replicate. With the creation of blogging, anyone with Internet access and the desire to voice their opinions on any variety of issues can relatively quickly create a blog to do so; therefore, blogs have empowered citizens by tearing down the barriers to entry and enabling the voice of the individual to be heard. Unlike face-to-face communication, the telephone, or television, blogs bring together voices from all over the world, which enhances the process of communication by circumventing previous barriers such as geographical location and selective censorship. In theory, an individual can create a blog that focuses on a particular issue or category that he/she is interested in and once that information is posted on the web, any other individual who comes across the blog and is interested in the same issues can leave comments, participate in online debates, and build social capital on the Internet. Before providing examples of how blogs enhance community, it is necessary to briefly consider the history of blogs and address the current state of blogging in America.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, as of 2006, out of the 147 million American adults who use the Internet, eight percent, or about 12 million American adults, report that they have a blog (Lenhart & Fox, 2006). Even more notable, thirty-nine percent, or about 57 million American adults, say that they read blogs. Pew also reports that although user-friendly blogging tools were introduced in 1999, most bloggers began blogging within three years or less, which makes sense since blogs began receiving more mainstream media attention during the 2004 presidential election cycle. Speaking to the issue of blogs empowering individuals by allowing them to voice their opinions regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, Pew found that more so than the general Internet population, bloggers were evenly split between men and women and more racially diverse. Whereas the general Internet population breaks down into 74% white, 9% African-American, 11% English-speaking Hispanic, and 6% other race, the demography of bloggers stands at 60% white, 11% African-American, 19% English-speaking Hispanic, and 10% other race. Pew also found that the most distinguishable characteristic of bloggers was their youth, with 54% of bloggers being under the age of thirty. The diffusion of blogs has been gradually rising since 2002 when only 3% of Americans reported having a blog (http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_blogging_data.pdf). In regards to community, Pew found that most bloggers use features that enhance community, usability, and interactivity in the sense that almost nine in ten (87%) bloggers allow comments and 41% have a blogroll or friends list on their blog (Lenhart & Fox, 2006).
The blog Slashdot.org is an excellent example of how the Internet enhances and builds on community. Upon navigating to the Slashdot homepage (http://slashdot.org/), its aim is immediately clear. The website’s tagline reads, “News for nerds, stuff that matters,” and the entire website consists of user responses to technology related news stories that members can post up online. Unlike traditional media, the people posting these stories are not reporters who are trained to write about a topic that they may or may not have much interest in; instead, the stories that appear on the website are selected by permanent moderators and other members of the online community. The website itself is maintained by, contributed to, and moderated by members of the same online community who all have a considerable interest in technology. In his article, Poor (2005) describes the website as an online public sphere that is formed by online discourse, which means that users usually link to other stories that have already been disseminated through other sources and facilitate discussion by giving their opinions or highlighting certain aspects of the news. If other members of the massive blog find the entry to be interesting or would like to add something further to the discussion, they can leave comments or ask questions, which often sets off a chain reaction of discussion that can sometimes lead to heated debate.
The website is also self-moderated in the sense that “flaming,” people posting up hostile, offensive, or senseless comments for no apparent reason, will rarely occur since the members of the Slashdot community are serious about discussing issues that they all share the same interests in. Using the traditional definition of community, this kind of healthy interaction among members likely would not occur since they are not being brought together by shared interests or purpose, but being brought together instead by geographical location.
The Slashdot website satisfies all of the parameters set out in Rogers and Chen’s modern definition of community. Slashdot consists of people who share the same interests or purpose, is governed by policies in the form of rules or protocols (self-moderated website), and facilitates persistent and ongoing interactions among its members. In this case, it is clear that by bringing together people with similar interests, the Slashdot blog has enhanced community and even expanded upon it since the website is accessible to people all over the world and not just in one geographically bounded location.
The Internet can also enhance existing communities by providing a virtual space for expanding upon and further developing communication among individuals. Localized blogs provide support solid support to this claim. By the term “localized blogs,” I am referring to a blog that is focused on issues or events pertaining to a local community of people in the same area.
The blog PhilaPhile (http://philly.typepad.com/) is a salient example of how the Internet enhances community. As its tagline indicates, the blog consists of information about Philadelphia from a life-long resident. The blog is maintained by Michael Feagans, a regular citizen who uses his blog to write about his experiences, different events going on, good or bad places to eat, or anything else pertaining to Philadelphia. On the right side of the webpage, he has even broken down the city into different categories pertaining to geographical location or specific interests. For example there is a category for Center City and another for sports related issues. On the left side of the webpage, Feagans also provides links to numerous other blogs that are specific to issues regarding Philadelphia making it easier for users to find out more about issues they care about. Feagans’ blog along with the multitude of other localized blogs on the Internet provide more extensive and personalized coverage of issues or events than can be achieved through other mediums of communication. For instance, the local news may cover the rising murder rates in Philadelphia, but it cannot realistically be expected to cover the same number of minor/micro issues that can be covered on places like blogs or Internet forums. Therefore, aside from the ability of blogs to create and foster healthy online communities, blogs also function to enhance local, geographically bound communities by vastly expanding upon the scope and depth of local issue coverage.
Social Networking Sites: The Era of Facebook and MySpace
The creation of online social networking sites like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook signaled a new era in the field of communication. A social networking site is defined by the Pew Internet and American Life Project as “an online place where a user can create a profile and build a personal network that connects him or her to other users.” Even more than blogs, which have essentially become incorporated into these sites, social networking sites have enabled people of all ages to create an online profile and accumulate friends with whom they can interact. While it is still early to determine how exactly people are using these sites, there is an empirical basis that supports the fact that the advent of these sites have enhanced community. I will focus on Facebook as an example of how the Internet has positively transformed community.
Facebook was created in 2004 and as of 2007, it was reported that it had more than 21 million registered members and generated 1.6 billion page views each day (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). Pew echoes this explosion in popularity of such sites with its data that show more than half (55%) of American youths 12-17 use social networking sites (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2007). Aside from safety and privacy concerns, social networking sites like Facebook are increasingly used by individuals to both maintain existing relationships and make new friends. Pew data show that 91% of users who use social networking sites reported that they used the sites to keep in touch with friends they saw a lot. Eighty-two percent of respondents said that they used the sites to stay in touch with friends they rarely saw, 72% used the sites to make plans with friends, and a considerable 49% said that they used the sites to make new friends. The data suggest that there are certain positive effects that are being experienced due to websites like Facebook.
Facebook and other social networking sites meet the criteria outlined in the following definition of social capital offered by Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992): “the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.” Not only do these sites satisfy the conditions, they enhance the traditional community by bringing together people with similar interests or tastes in a way that was previously not possible. Looking at the original purpose of Facebook provides a clear example of how this new communication technology has enhanced community. Originally designed only to be available to college students, Facebook served as a virtual icebreaker that made it easier for incoming freshmen to meet other people at the same school.
Students could search the profiles of others who had similar interests, hobbies, or political views and send them a friend request, which could lead to meeting that person face-to-face and building a closer relationship. Similarly, even if a student met someone in person at a party on a Friday night, they could then send a friend request to that person the next day and seek to extend that meeting into getting to know each other better. There is also the ability to create and join virtual groups that can bring together people with similar interests and lead to the building of more social capital. In fact, early research suggests that there is a certain directionality of online to offline relations in that Internet conversations and messaging are often used to build social trust with one another before pursuing face-to-face meetings (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007).
One counterargument to the beneficial effects of the Internet on community often focuses on the issue of core ties versus significant (loose) ties and suggests that having a multitude of loose ties while not having a few strong core ties means that social capital has been lost. In other words, the argument stipulates that having hundreds of Facebook friends means nothing if that same individual does not have at least one or more strong core ties with whom he/she discusses close personal issues. This counterargument will be decisively refuted.
When attempting to analyze the Internet’s impact on social ties, it is necessary to consider the debate over whether the Internet is “capable of bringing strangers together to form intimate online networks” or if it just creates the “illusion of community” as some scholars have characterized it (Zhao, 2006). Unlike the telephone, which ended up being used only to reinforce existing networks of social contact, the Internet more aptly lends itself to creating and maintaining social capital. In regards to social ties, Zhao (2006) finds that people who use the Internet for interpersonal contact (email, chatting, forums) are likely to have more social connections than those users who use the Internet for nonsocial purposes (solitary activities such as general web surfing).
While Zhao’s study does not find that the Internet unequivocally increases social ties, it illustrates the fact that social ties depend on how an individual uses the Internet, which in essence is a reflection of that individual’s personality. If a person is using the Internet solely for solitary purposes, it is likely that that person does not wish to maintain many social ties in the first place. Similarly, if a person is using the Internet for interpersonal contact, it is likely that that person is more of an extrovert who craves social contact. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to say that the since the Internet enables the miserly public to selectively expose themselves only to information of their choosing, it has resulted in a decrease of social ties. Instead, it would seem that the reason for the decline is rooted in something else since the Internet does not change a person’s value dispositions or personality. The Internet has simply added on to existing technologies and in many cases expanded upon community.
As outlined in the 2006 “lonely Americans” Duke study, in the past two decades there has been a sharp decline in the number of confidants an individual has, with the greatest loss in non-family connections (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2007). This data would suggest that the decline in core ties is evidence of the decline of social capital that Robert D. Putnam outlined in his book Bowling Alone, but the data do not show the whole picture. Websites like Facebook enable an individual to maintain a multitude of loose ties that very well can be more beneficial to them than only a few core ties.
As Professor Nisbet suggested, having a large number of Facebook friends is essentially equivalent to accumulating a lot of business cards when you meet people at various locations. Before the Internet, maintaining these loose ties would be difficult to do, but with the rise of email and social networking sites, you can much more efficiently and effectively keep in touch with these loose ties. While you may not invite all of these people to dinner or discuss your deep-seated desires with them, having them as loose ties can be extremely beneficial to you since you can easily activate these loose ties with an email or a Facebook message whenever it is most convenient or beneficial for you to do so. Having strong core ties is definitely not a bad thing, but the trade-off associated with having more loose ties is not inherently a bad thing either. Especially in this case, the Internet has merely added on and enhanced other forms of communication by making the process more efficient, cost-effective, and practical.
Online Support Groups: A Virtual Helping Hand
One of the best places to look for the unifying and community-enhancing effects of the Internet is at online support groups, which provide a compelling basis for the overlying thesis of this paper. Recent Pew data have suggested that an increasing number of people are using the Internet to become more informed on a variety of health issues. Seventy-nine percent, or 95 million American adults, of Internet users said that they used the Internet to find out information on health-related issues (Fox, 2005). Sixty-six percent of users looked for information regarding a specific disease and more than half (51%) searched for more information on medical treatments and procedures.
There have been a variety of studies that at times contradict each other, but a Fogel et al. (2002) study looked at 178 breast cancer patients and examined the role that the Internet played in gaining psychological benefits (Rodgers & Chen, 2005). The study found that use of the Internet for attaining information on breast health related issues was associated with greater social support and less loneliness; other studies also suggest that women found Internet-based discussion groups and bulletin boards helpful and empowering (Rodgers & Chen, 2005). Another benefit added by the Internet is the ability of people to spread their own personal narratives of their experiences with breast cancer or other sicknesses/illnesses. In regards to women with breast cancer, “The Internet is increasingly becoming a medium in which women with breast cancer not only receive information and/or support about illness but also compose and circulate their own stories about breast cancer,” which in turn helps create more social capital among a group of people who have been brought together by similar circumstances and not geographical location (Rodgers & Chen, 2005).
A traditional geographically-bounded community could not produce the same kind of beneficial psychological results that an online support group does because the community is not based upon shared experiences. A woman with breast cancer, for example, would probably not get much social support from a community in which no one else had any experience with the disease. This is precisely when the Internet can be used to help give social support and form an online community that benefits all of the parties involved.
There are also added benefits to online support groups that cannot be experienced in a traditional setting. According to Walther and Boyd (2002), computer mediated communication (CMC) offers potential benefits such as anonymity, greater access, and a wider range of expertise. In reference to the support group Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), VanLear et al. (2005) state that “AA members often report feelings of extreme isolation from others and a lack of openness and honesty in communication with other prior to joining AA,” which goes away when they are able to share experiences and information with other and receive support. The Internet expands the range of people who are available to share experiences and provide support at low-cost; therefore, it facilitates more healthy interaction among people in online support groups, a specific kind of community.
It is also possible for the members of the online support group to arrange face-to-face meetings if it is desired and feasible. This is supported by the fact that “Communication is hardly ever restricted to a single medium; usually several media are used depending on what is most convenient at the time” (Preece & Maloney-Krichmar, 2005). It is this issue of convenience that is central to understanding the impact of the Internet. Although there are many cases when the Internet makes things possible that were not before, it also accents other forms of more traditional communication.
As is usually the case with the rise of most new information technologies, the advent of the Internet brought about a confluence of opinions about its impact on the future. On one end of the spectrum, the Internet is often discussed in a utopian manner. On the other end, “Cyber-skeptics” believe that the Internet will only reinforce existing patterns of behavior and have an overall negative effect on humanity. While the Internet clearly does not provide a perfect utopia for humanity, the argument laid out in this paper has shown that it provides many benefits that help to create and enhance communities all over the world.
The rise of blogging has given a voice back to the individual in the sense that anyone with Internet access can create a blog and at once be connected with a mass of other Internet users. Likewise, social networking sites like Facebook have enhanced community by making it easier to create and maintain social capital by allowing individuals to more efficiently keep in touch with both core and loose ties. The rise of these sites did not create a new way of social networking; instead, the Internet has added on to other forms of communication and in many cases made the process better. Online support groups are also great examples of the positive emotional effects that can be experienced by using the Internet. Unlike support groups that meet in geographically-bound locations, the Internet can bring together a wider variety of people with similar experiences and greater levels of knowledge. This enhanced capability helps foster community by bringing together people who can trade stories and, in turn, provide each other with a greater amount of helpful support than can be achieved in a traditional setting.
The main way the Internet helps enhance community is by bringing people together who have similar interests, hobbies, or beliefs. Unlike a traditional community that is usually brought together by location, online communities create more focused groups of people and add more diversity by tearing down restrictive geographical boundaries. Aside from these benefits, the Internet also makes the process of communication more efficient, less costly, and provides more opportunities to create and maintain social capital. The Internet also allows for a greater amount of specialization, localization, and selectivity. Internet users can easily obtain more detailed information about different issues or events and connect with a multitude of other users to discuss different opinions and reactions. Therefore, the Internet is best characterized as a complement to other forms of media technology that frequently can be used to accomplish tasks that could not have been done before its rise.
As the evidence has shown, it is not accurate to say that online communities do not produce the same amount of social capital as traditional communities simply because they do not take place in a face-to-face setting. In fact, once a sufficient amount of social trust has been accumulated among members of an online community, their interaction will often move from an online setting to an offline setting if it is possible. And as far as the argument of time displacement goes, there is opportunity cost associated with every activity; therefore, it would be misleading to apply this theory to say that the Internet’s influence is negative overall. Using the same logic, one could say that any activity causes time displacement since you can only do so many things at one time. At least with the Internet, there is often two-or-more-way interaction that takes place as opposed to a medium like television where people have one-way parasocial relationships with made-up characters on shows and movies. It is still early to gauge the exact extent of the Internet’s effect on community, but there are certain trends that appear to be forming. As the Internet further solidifies and engrains itself in the fabric of life all over the world, it will yield greater benefits and establish healthier communities based on shared interests across a more diverse and abundant field of citizens.
Oxford Online Dictionary. (2007). Definition of Community. Retrieved November 10, 2007,
Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.
Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social
capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4), article 1. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue4/ellison.html
Elon University/Pew Internet and American Life Project (2004). Imagining the Internet’s Quick
Look at the Early History of the Internet. Retrieved November 11, 2007, from http://www.elon.edu/predictions/internethistory.aspx
Fogel, J., Albert, S. M., Schnabel, F., Ditkoff, B. A., & Neugut, A. I. (2002). Internet use and
social support in women with breast cancer. Health Psychology, 21 (4), 398-404.
Fox, S. (2005). Health Information Online. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved
November 10, 2007, from http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Healthtopics_May05.pdf
Hampton, K.N., & Wellman, B. (1999). Netville online and offline: Observing and Surveying a
Wired Suburb. American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3), 475-492.
Lenhart, A., & Fox S. (2006). Bloggers: A portrait of the internet’s new storytellers. Pew
Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved November 10, 2007, from http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP%20Bloggers%20Report%20July%2019%202006.pdf
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M.E. (2006). Social Isolation in America:
Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review, 71. 353-375.
Pew Internet and American Life Project. (2007, January 3) Social Networking Websites and
Teens: An Overview. Retrieved November 10, 2007, from http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_SNS_Data_Memo_Jan_2007.pdf
Poor, N. (2005). Mechanisms of an online public sphere: The website Slashdot. Journal of
Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(2), article 4.
Preece, J., & Maloney-Krichmar, D. (2005). Online communities: Design, theory, and practice.
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(4), article 1. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue4/preece.html
Rodgers, S., & Chen, Q. (2005). Internet community group participation: Psychosocial benefits
for women with breast cancer. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(4), article 5. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue4/rodgers.html
Sosnik, D.B., Dowd, M.J., & Fournier, R. (2006). Applebee’s America: How Successful
Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
VanLear, C.A., Sheehan, M., Withers, L.A., & Walker, R.A. (2005). AA Online: The Enactment
of Supportive Computer Mediated Communication. Western Journal of Communication, 69 (1). 5-26.
Walther, J.B., & Boyd, S. (2002). Attraction to Computer-Mediated Social Support. Retrieved
November 10, 2007, from http://www.msu.edu/~jwalther/docs/support.html
Zhao, S. (2006). Do Internet users have more social ties? A call for differentiated analyses of
Internet use. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(3), article 8. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue3/zhao.html
How the Internet Hurts Communities
by Brittney M.
Team members: Heather A., Everett B., Katie L. & Kelley R.
The term “Internet” is defined as the electronic network that links people and information through computers and other digital devices allowing person-to-person communication and information retrieval (DiMaggio, 2001, p. 307). The Internet emerged in 1982, but did not begin its rapid ascent as a new media until the 1990s. With more than 55 million Americans going online in 2000, the Internet is rapidly changing society. While it has positively expanded the way many people communicate with others in their community, it has had negative draw backs as well. From the viewpoint of a cyber-skeptic, community is hurt by new communication technologies such as email, online discussion groups, Web sites, and blogs. Community cannot exist in cyberspace, and these technologies detract from traditional forms of community.
Internet and Community
When defining community, one might think back to the traditional view of community as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific location, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. A traditional community is people with common interests living in a particular area. Today’s community is what you make of it, where and how you want it, because “the Internet has knocked down traditional barriers to participation and community” (Sosnik, 2006, p. 150). Community is a set of social relationships among individuals based on a common interest. Strong communities feature relationships that have high degree of support, emotional depth, personal intimacy, and moral commitment that remain relatively constant or reliable across time.
The Internet has contributed to a shift from a group-based to a network-based society that is decoupling community and geographic propinquity (DiMaggio et al., 2001). Because of this, a community can now be defined as the social circle people choose to inhabit. Online (virtual) communities have emerged with the use of the Internet, connecting geographically distant people who share similar interests as well as facilitating interaction among friends and families to discuss issues related to their neighborhood (DiMaggio et al., 2001).
Community and Social Capital. Social capital describes how basic elements of community life such as interpersonal trust and social networks provide the means for citizens to cooperate on joint problems (Shah, 2001, p. 142). This concept is the resources of information, norms, and social relations embedded in communities that enable people to coordinate collective action for the achievement of a common goal (Shah, 2001, p. 467). Social movements create social capital, by fostering new identities and extending social networks (Putnam, 2001, p. 153). Specific norms, forms of trust, aspects of knowledge, or other resources forged through social interaction allow individuals to come together to solve problems.
Social capital was created through interactions that are ideally both “bridging” (across different groups) and “bonding” (personally intimate). Dimensions of social capital include trust, knowledge, number and diversity of “social ties,” group association or involvement, and political participation. The Internet does not provide grounds to build such communities. Interpersonal trust and civic participation are important individual-level indicators of social capital (Shah, 2001, p. 467). The Internet generally implies physical inactivity and limited face-to-face social interaction (Shah, 2001).
Heightened use of the Internet caused declines in participant’s communication with family and friends. Studies relate increases in time spent on-line with decreases in time socializing and attending events outside the home, suggesting that the Internet causes people to lose touch with their social environment. Connecting with others in on-line environments may undermine traditional relationships, displacing strong, face-to-face ties with weak associations. The recreational uses of the Internet may erode the individual-level production of social capital because these activities are generally anonymous, but foster a false sense of social interaction. They provide the illusion of face-to-face social interplay and belonging without the civic benefits (Shah, 2001, p. 473).
Community and Civic Engagement
Civic engagement refers to participation in civic and community activities (Shah, 2001, p. 146). According to author Robert Putnam, the Internet is a powerful tool for the transmission of information among physically distant people. But, he begs the question as to whether that flow of information fosters social capital and genuine community (Putnam, 2001). Putnam argues that Internet has brought a loss of social capital to society by abandoning the idea of a genuine community and enhancing the notion of virtual communities. The Internet is pulling people apart and reducing civic engagement rather than building it up (Sosnik, 2006, p. 152). Putnam argues that reinforcement, the digital divide, loss of social cues online, cyber-balkanization, and time displacement of the Internet have hurt the community.
Reinforcement. The Internet does not help people make or develop new social ties, but instead reinforces pre-existing social networks (Putnam, 2001, p. 168). Instead of opening new possibilities, the Internet merely lets people pursue their original way of life. Putnam compares the telephone to the Internet saying that it allowed Americans to do more casually and with less effort what they had already been doing before (Putnam, 2001, p. 169). Likewise, the Internet reinforces patterns in social ties allowing people to communicate with the same friends and like-minded others.
Digital Divide. The “digital divide” refers to the social inequality of access to cyberspace (Putnam, 2001, p. 174). Internet access can limit people’s opportunity to find jobs, obtain an education, access government information, participate in political dialog, and build networks of social support (DiMaggio, 2001, p. 310). Access to the Internet is limited and those who do not have access will not be able to get ahead in society.
In the early years of the Internet, heavy users were predominantly younger, highly educated, and upper-income white males. A study by the Census Bureau in 1997 found that the least connected groups in American society were the rural poor, racial minorities, and young, female-headed households. Moreover, these gaps in education, income, race, and family structure are growing.
The Internet has not mobilized inactive groups, but instead has reinforced existing bias and patterns in who has online access. Socially and economically advantaged individuals already have access to the Internet giving them an unfair advantage. This is called a “Cyberapartheid” where “bridging social capital” of Internet becomes less accessible to the disadvantaged. This is also a global issue in which only 5% of the world’s population has Internet access (DiMaggio, 2001, p. 312). 97% of Internet host computers are located in developed countries making a great divide between developed and less developed nations.
Loss of Social Cues Online. Computer-mediated communication transmits much less nonverbal information than face-to-face communication (Putnam, 2001, p. 172). Face-to-face encounters provide a depth and speed of feedback that is impossible in computer-mediated communication. Online interaction lacks nuance of face-to-face and therefore is not nearly as information rich in getting to know someone. Online groups are very good at sharing information, gathering opinions, and debating alternatives, but not very good at building trust, goodwill, and solidarity as they foster feelings of depersonalization.
“The poverty of social cues in computer-mediated communication inhibits interpersonal collaboration and trust, especially when the interaction is anonymous and not nested in a wider social context” (Putnam, 2001, p. 173). Computer-mediated communication is more egalitarian, frank, and task oriented than face-to-face communication. Cheating and reneging are more common in computer-mediated communication because of misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
People are less bound by social niceties and are quicker to resort to extreme language and invective “flaming,” or the image of communication as hand-to-hand combat with flamethrowers. It is difficult to build trust and goodwill in cyberspace and computer-mediated communication networks tend to be sparse and unbound. It is good to coordinate and collaborate with old friends or face-to-face colleagues via the Internet, but not very good at getting to know your new neighbors, or people you have never met face-to-face.
Cyber-Balkanization. The Internet enables us to confine our communication to people who share our same interests (Putnam, 2001, p. 177). While this could attract people to the Internet, it is a threat to bridging social capital. Real-world interactions often force us to deal with diversity, whereas the virtual world may be more homogeneous in terms of interest and outlook. Place-based communities may be substituted by interest-based communities. “In physical communities we are forced to live with people who may differ from us in many ways. But virtual communities offer us the opportunity to construct utopian collectivities – communities of interest, education, tastes, beliefs, and skills. In cyberspace we can remake the world out of an “unsettled landscape” (Putnam, 2001, p. 178).
Because the Internet allows us to confine our communication to people who personally share our own interests, members of issue-based or interest-based online communities are connected to each other only by that topic. According to Cyber-Balkanization, the Internet may only amplify trends toward greater homogeneity in society. This hurts community because people do not get to know others that are different from them.
Time Displacement. Time becomes relatively immaterial on the Internet (Bargh & McKenna, 2000). Time displacement is when avid Internet users are spending their time online, rather than in face-to-face communication. Like television, the majority of Internet is used for entertainment because citizens are cognitive misers. Individuals who use the Internet mainly for entertainment and anonymous socialization do not experience civic benefits (Shah, 2001).
Internet use can be addictive. Use of the Internet reduces time spent in community, and time used for real world and face-to-face involvement. Studies show that high levels of Internet use were “associated with declines in communication with family members, decline in social circles, and increased loneliness and depression” (DiMaggio, 2001, p. 315). Heavy users substituted interaction with weak ties on the Internet for time spent with close friends and relatives.
The Internet and Civic Engagement
The Internet essentially provides unlimited information on issues that can be obtained with relatively limited effort (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2004, p. 878). Individuals can track political issues in much greater depth and can personalize their own news consumption, potentially cutting down on the costs of keeping up with political events. People who like news take advantage of abundant political information offered by the Internet to become more knowledgeable (Prior, 2005, p. 577). In contrast, people who prefer entertainment abandon the news and become less likely to learn about politics and go to the polls. Individuals who use the Internet frequently for entertainment purposes are less likely to feel useful in their political role in the democratic process in society and also have less knowledge about facts relevant to current events (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002, p. 55). The Internet, therefore, increases gaps in knowledge and turnout between people who prefer news and people who prefer entertainment.The Internet has brought a rise to audience fragmentation and selective exposure (Prior, 2005, p. 577).
Studies have shown that people’s increasing ability to customize their political information will have a polarizing impact on democracy as media users become less likely to encounter information that challenges their partisan view. As media choice increases, the likelihood of “chance encounters” with any political content decline significantly. Greater choice allows politically interested people to access more information and increase their political knowledge. But, those who prefer nonpolitical content can more easily escape the news and therefore pick up less political information. In a high-choice environment, like the one the Internet gives, lack of motivation poses the main obstacle to a widely informed electorate.
Greater media choice thus widens the “knowledge gap” (Prior, 2005, p. 578). It reinforces gaps between the resource rich and resource poor (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002, p. 56). This knowledge gap has lead to an unequal distribution of news exposure and less equal distribution of political knowledge.
Voter turnout has fallen over the past four decades, with less than a majority of Americans voting in recent elections (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002, p. 57). Since political knowledge is an important predictor of turnout and since exposure to political information motivates turnout, the shift from a low-choice to a high-choice media environment implies changes in electoral participation as well (Prior, 2005, p. 578). Those with a preference for news not only become more knowledgeable, but also vote at higher rates. But, those with a stronger interest in other media content vote less.
The Internet will make people apolitical and provide mind-numbing entertainment that keeps citizens from fulfilling their democratic responsibilities (Prior, 2005, p. 587). Human beings are cognitive misers, seeking out as little information as possible to make any given decision (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002, p. 59). The Internet makes it easier to selectively use certain types of information. It is like the magazine marker, where some individuals are likely to subscribe to the Economist while others may subscribe to Playboy (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002, p. 59). The citizens that choose to take advantage of Internet information sources are determined by personal resources including time, money, and technology skills as well as motivation, inducing interest and confidence. People who are more likely to read political news online are already politically motivated, resource advantaged, have greater luxury opportunity, or have stronger local ties and engage more frequently in political activities (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002, p. 61). Media content has shown dramatic growth in “soft news,” or news unrelated to public affairs or policy that is typically more sensational, personally or celebrity oriented, less time-bound, and more incident-based than hard news (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002, p. 58).
Online readers are exposed to fewer articles regarding international, national, or political issues, and are less likely to attend to stories that traditionally were grouped in the front section of most newspapers (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2004, p. 879). This leads those with a preference of entertainment to become less knowledgeable about politics and less likely to vote (Prior, 2005, p. 587).
In a survey taken in 2000, studies showed that when asked which specific types of news content people read online, political news (39 percent) and local news (37 percent) ranked last, while entertainment news ranked higher (44 percent) (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002, p. 60). Fewer cues regarding the importance and prominence of stories online meant that individuals were more willing to follow their own interests (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2004, p. 879).
People’s media content preferences become the key to understanding the political implications of news media (Prior, 2005). The knowledge gap will continue to increase as digital technology will multiply the number of choices online and thereby further increase the impact of content preferences on users’ choices.
Online Relationships and Dating
Evolution has left individuals with a set of perceptual and interpretive processes that allow people to efficiently identify desirable potential partners (Online dating research at Berkley, 2004). Online relationships and online dating make us forfeit most of these sensory channels and generalize non-romantic situations.
Interpersonal perception relies on a variety of sophisticated mechanisms that humans have evolved over time (Online dating research at Berkley, 2004). Relating over the Internet is usually referred to as computer-mediated communication, focusing attention on the linguistic characteristics of such interactions (Whitty & Gavin, 2001, p. 624). Computer-mediated communication, however, offers only a limited set of communicative channels compared to face-to-face interaction, forcing users to employ other means to evaluate potential partners.
Online relationships are shallow and impersonal (Whitty & Gavin, 2001, p. 623). The relative lack of social cues on the Internet renders online relationships more hostile and less fulfilling than traditional face-to-face relationships. They are meaningless compared to face-to-face relationships, since they lack the full bandwidth, or the extent of verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, provided in face-to-face relationships.
Electronic communication provides a sense of intimacy without the emotional investment that leads to close and enduring relationships. This is demonstrated in the “boom or bust” phenomenon in which a rapid process of intimate self-disclosure leads budding relationships to become “quite intense quite quickly” (Whitty & Gavin, 2001, p. 624). It will feel exhilarating at first, and become quickly eroticized, both then not be able to be sustained because the underlying trust and true knowledge of the other are not there to support it.
Online relationships are more impersonal and less intimate than face-to-face relationships (Whitty & Gavin, 2001, p. 624). Social presence is the feeling that a person has with another person when involved in a communication exchange. Since computer-mediated communication involves less nonverbal cues (such as facial expression, posture, dress, etc.) and auditory cues in comparison to face-to-face communication, it is extremely low in social presence. As social presence declines, communication becomes more impersonal.
Online dating is an example of an online relationship. Users of online dating systems often express disappointment in their experience, particularly after meeting a potential partner in person with whom they have only corresponded online (Online dating research at Berkley, 2004). This disappointment could stem from the systematic misperception of one another through mediated channels in general and online dating profiles in particular. Studies show that communication over sparse channels can lead to idealization. If this is the case, disappointment in online dating could steam from overly optimistic exception formed prior to meeting in person. Online dating users might misperceive each other, which could also lead to disappointment.
Many theories of computer-mediated communication describe the medium as impoverished, meaning the information conveyed might be of limited richness compared to face-to-face interaction (Online dating research at Berkley, 2004). Joseph Walther proposed a theory of “hyperpersonal” communication to explain this. When the channel is impoverished, users cannot receive as much information quickly as they would face-to-face, so they fill in the blanks optimistically about their conversational partner (Online dating research at Berkley, 2004). In some sense, they idealize them in light of incomplete information. Walther’s research showed that this effect is most powerful in long-term online interaction in which participants never see photos of each other. His studies also showed the least social empathy occurred in short-term online interaction without photographs, a finding particularly relevant to online dating, where many users are unwilling or unable to post photos of themselves with their profiles.
Research in social psychology has shown that proximity, similarity in attitudes, political beliefs, and factors like religiosity predict attraction (Online dating research at Berkley, 2004). Studies by Klohnen and Mendelson found that people prefer similarity in traits that they like in themselves, and complementarily in traits that they dislike in themselves (those traits that do not match their conception of ideal self). Those characteristics that predict initial attraction might not predict long-term relationship satisfaction. The problem of matching two entities for mutual benefit goes beyond the realm of romance.
The Internet leads to loss of privacy, impersonal communications, and isolation (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005, p. 335). An increasing problem in communities is that young people are becoming some of the heaviest users of the Internet. 74% of United States residents between the ages of 12 and 18 are using the Internet (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005, p. 336). Among Internet users between 12 and 18, 35% spend 31-60 minutes per day online, and 44% spend more than one hour per day online. Studies shows that 56% of teens aged 18 to 19 prefer Internet to the telephone and that to keep up their communications with friends, more than 81% of teens use e-mail while 70% use instant messaging.
Interpersonal communications are likely to be computer-mediated (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005, p. 337). If children and teenagers are already using computers as a significant form of education, communication, and entertainment, less time is spent having face-to-face interactions with peers. This leads to significant consequences for their development of social skills and their presentation of self.
The Internet leads to significant increases in loneliness and depression (Bargh & McKenna, 2000, p. 58). Along with a loss of social cues is social isolation. According to studies preformed at Duke University and the University of Arizona, life in front of a computer screen is very lonely. Research shows that “most adults only have two people they can talk to about the most important subjects in their lives – serious health problems, for example, or issues like who will care for their children should they die. And about one-quarter have no close confidants at all” (McPherson, 2006).
People are missing out on deep, meaningful, interpersonal relationships and the number of ties with whom people can discuss important issues is decreasing. Ties are becoming more homogenous, smaller, more densely connected, and focused almost exclusively on the family. If social ties are an important source of social support, larger and more diverse social nets remain among the highly educated, but are narrowing and declining among lower education levels. Studies have shown that using the Internet has resulted in a reduction in the size of the average participant’s social network. Internet takes time away form one’s existing non-Internet relationships and could impact those, thus increasing loneliness.
The particular set of rules an individual chooses to follow derives from requirements established in social encounters (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005, p. 337). Therefore, an individual’s concept of self is shaped by the sum of the social interaction in which that individual engages. Children learn to cope with role strains through their own social experience and by watching others navigate social interactions that involve contradictory or competing roles. Feelings of enthusiasm and confidence can both be generated and diminished through social interaction (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005, p. 339). Emotions that emerge out of social interactions are important in the development of any relationship.
Interaction taking place online is a new form of social interaction (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005). Online interactions lead to dysfunctional behavior, a lack of community, less privacy, a weakened democracy, and social isolation. It is difficult for individuals to accurately communicate the intent behind the words they typed without the use of their usual repertoire of visual and aural social cues. Thus when problems do arise, people leave the chat room or turn off the computer. Individuals online are more likely to respond in a quick and spontaneous manner. There is no shared physical space to disrupt, there is no implicit social contract, and there are few social interaction rituals to prevent individuals from being rude when delivering their responses.
If students develop unique interaction rituals based on online communication without enough experience or understanding of traditional face-to-face interaction rituals, the likelihood for friction and conflict to occur increases (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005, p. 341). Such youths may be perceived as rude, insolent, disconnected, spoiled, or apathetic. Classrooms with computers hooked up to the Internet predispose students to work as individuals rather than as members of any social group.
One aspect of online interaction that causes trouble in many face-to-face interactions is anonymity because it is possible to be anonymous while on the Internet. Physical appearance and visual cues are not present and are not an influential factor on the Internet (Bargh & McKenna, 2000, p. 61). When an individual’s self-awareness is blocked or seriously reduced by environmental conditions deindividuation can occur. Anonymity, feelings of close group unity, a high level of physiological arousal, and a focus on external events or goals are conditions that have been shown to encourage and often produce deindividuation. Outcomes include a weakened ability to regulate behavior, reduced ability to engage in rational, long-term planning, and a tendency to react to immediate cues or based largely on his or her current emotional state. An individual is less likely to care what others think of his or her behavior and may even have a reduced awareness of what others have said or done. These effects can culminate in impulsive and disinherited behavior.
People manipulate their online identities, pretending to be different people and giving false information to people they communicate with online (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005, p. 341). People tend to behave more bluntly when communicating by e-mail or participating in other electronic venues such as newsgroups, than they would in face-to-face situation (Bargh & McKenna, 2000, p. 61). Misunderstanding, greater hostility and aggressive responses, and non conforming behavior are more likely to occur in computer-mediated interactions than in interactions that take place face-to-face. Computer-mediated communication can foster an inability to form group consensus, increased verbal hostility and impersonalization, and an inability to become task focused. Racists and members of hate groups have used the cloak of anonymity afforded by the Internet to harass minority group’s members through sending hateful or threatening e-mail.
The Internet has hurt the traditional form of community that our society is based upon, but the greater concern is the continued negative impact on future generations that will be felt for years to come. With the large majority of our young people being raised with a dependence on forms of Internet communication as their main source of interaction with others, they are growing up with decreased social skills and a decreased presentation of self. This is their reality and their standard of what is acceptable. They will have less emotional depth, and will be void of high levels of personal intimacy and moral commitment. The end result of this will be a society in which relationships with family and friends are not a priority. Trust, goodwill, and solidarity will not be commonplace.
Coming together with a wealth of knowledge of different ideas to expound upon will be a thing of the past, as the norm will be to only click on and spend time with those that share the same views. Views will not be challenged, compromises will not need to be met, and the status quo will become adherence to potentially biased views that remain within one’s comfort zone. The characteristics that make us a successful melting pot of talents and ideas, and a nation of innovators and world leaders will be a thing of the past. The children of today will not know anything different and our world as we know it will be negatively changed forever. Human beings must think and feel. A community based in cyberspace will not be nurtured in these areas and our uniqueness as individuals and as a society will be lost forever.
Bargh, J.A., & McKenna, K. (2000). Plan 9 from Cyberspace: The Implications of the
Internet for Personality and Social Psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4(1), 57-72.
Brignall, T.W. & Van Valey, T. (2005). The Impact of Internet Communications on
Social Interaction. Sociological Spectrum, 25: 335-348.
DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W., & Robinson, J. (2001). Social Implications of the Internet. Annual Review of Sociology, 27(1), 307.
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. (2006). Social Isolation in America:
Changes in core Discussion Networks Over two Decades. American Sociological Review, 71: 353-375.
Nisbet, M., & Scheufele, D. (2004, Winter). Political Talk as a Catalyst for Online Citizenship. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 81(4), 877-896.
Online dating research at Berkley. (2004). Retrieved October 25, 2007 from
Prior, M. (2005, July). News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens
Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout. American Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 577-592.
Putnam, R. (2001). Against the tide? Small groups, social movements, and the Net. In
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (pp. 149-180). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Scheufele, D.A. & Nisbet, M.C. (2002). Being a Citizen on-line: New opportunities and
Dead ends. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 7(3), 53-73.
Shah, D., Kwak, N., & Holbert, R. (2001, April). Connecting and Disconnecting With
Civic Life: Patterns of Internet Use and the Production of Social Capital. Political Communication, 18(2), 141-162.
Shah, D.V., McLeod, J.M., and Yoon, S.H. (2001). Communication, Context, and
Community: An Exploration of Print, Broadcast, and Internet Influences. Communication Research, 28(4): 464-506.
Sosnick, D.B., Dowd, M.J. & Fournier, R. (2006). “The Three Cs: Connections,
Community, and Civic Engagement,” Chapter Five in Applebee’s America: How Successful Business and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community, pp 147-179.
Whitty, M., & Gavin, J. (2001, October). Age/Sex/Location: Uncovering the Social Cues
in the Development of Online Relationships. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 4(5), 623-630.