One of my favorite topics to discuss is the effect that technology has on social structures. Humans are social by nature and the effect of a completely new social medium has been an interesting one to observe over the last decade. I have several friends and family members who have an inherent distrust of new technology and generally think that the Internet is making people less socially adept. I usually find myself arguing the opposite side of this particular issue, and for three main reasons:
The Internet breaks down geographical barriers
I have three really great friends from high school who now live in three different parts of the country. If it wasn’t for IM, twitter, email, and skype, we probably would have lost touch over the years. Most of the people I’ve stayed in touch with over the years as I’ve moved around have been relatively tech-savvy, and I’ve reconnected with many others who have recently discovered Facebook, twitter, and other forms of social communication online.
This even works for business relationships. I’m a freelancer, and being on Twitter during the day while I’m working is very similar to working in an office, with people sharing links, asking questions, giving reviews of software or websites, etc. I think once we have a really seamless Twitter for video in a few years, this will be even more valuable.
The Internet breaks down time barriers
The Internet enables asynchronous communications so that people can contact me at any time that’s convenient for them, and I can respond whenever it works best for me. Of course, sending letters in the mail accomplishes the same thing, but now we have the additional benefit of being able to push and pull our communications to and from many people at once, based on a mix of their preferences and our own. One -> many channels like Twitter or Facebook’s News Feed make it dead simple to keep up with a lot of people passively, without needing to take up a lot of their time. It also lets me decide what’s important for me to pay attention to, and filter out a lot of the noise. That filtering isn’t perfect yet, but it’s getting better.
The Internet breaks down effort barriers
I guess this is related to the first two. I have some great friends here in San Francisco, and I love hanging out with them, but everyone is busy, we live in different parts of the city, parking is a pain, etc. The sheer effort required to coordinate a small group of busy professionals to meet at the same time and place is high.
On the other hand, Twitter and Facebook give me effortless insight into people’s daily lives that I wouldn’t get otherwise. I know who hasn’t been feeling well, who’s excited because they got a new puppy, who’s disgruntled about their job, who had a bit too much to drink last night, and so on. And I know all of this without very much effort on anyone’s part.
The Internet offers more communities to belong to
On the Internet, nothing is really a niche. Name pretty much any interest or topic and there’s probably tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people online who are interested in that. For example, there’s a thriving forum at christianpipesmokers.com that caters exclusively to pipe smokers who are also Christians. Thousands of people have posted hundreds of thousands of posts on this message board. If you live in Podunk, Iowa and you have an esoteric interest, you might have one or two people in a fifty mile radius who share that interest, but online, you’ve got thousands (or millions). This allows people to learn more about what they’re interested in and go deeper than they otherwise could because they’re sharing knowledge among many more people.
The Internet isn’t perfect, and it’s definitely had some negative effects on society. My attention span is about 8 minutes now, for example. And also, my memory is next to worthless for a lot of facts and trivia, because all I have to know is where to look it up. Google makes that easier every day. But I think that the end result of the Internet will be richer and more meaningful relationships.