The Net That Binds
One of the curious things about living through a time of whirlwind change is that it is often difficult to understand exactly what is changing. In recent years, new technology has given us the ability to transform basic aspects of our lives: the way we converse and learn; the way we work, play and shop; even the way we participate in political and social life. Dissidents around the world use the Internet to evade censorship and get their message out. Cyber-gossips send dispatches to thousands via e-mail. Musicians bypass record companies and put their songs on the Web for fans to download directly. Day traders roil the stock market, buying securities online with the click of a mouse and selling minutes later when the price jumps.
There is a common thread underlying such developments. It is not just a change in how we compute or communicate. Rather, it is a potentially radical shift in who is in control--of information, experience and resources. The Internet is allowing individuals to make decisions that once were made by governments, corporations and the media. To an unprec-edented degree, we can decide what news and entertainment we're exposed to and whom we socialize with. We can earn a living in new ways; we can take more control of how goods are distributed; and we can even exercise a new degree of political power. The potential for personal growth and social progress seems limitless. Yet what makes this shift in power--this control revolution--so much more authentic than those revolutions described by techno-utopian futurists is its volatility and lack of preordained outcome.
Contrary to the claims of cyber-romantics, democratic empowerment via technology is not inevitable. Institutional forces are resisting, and will continue to resist, giving up control to individuals. And some people may wield their new power carelessly, denying themselves its benefits and imperiling democratic values. Nowhere are the mixed blessings of the new individual control more evident than in the relationship of the Internet to communities--not just "virtual communities" of dispersed individuals interacting online but real, geographically based communities.
Masters of Our Own Domains
The Internet's impact on community has everything to do with a digital phenomenon known as personalization, which is simply the ability to shape one's experience more precisely--whether it's social encounters, news, work or learning. Traditionally, friendships and acquaintances have been structured by physical proximity; we meet people because they are our neighbors, classmates, co-workers or colleagues in some local organization. Much of our information intake--newspapers and radio, for example--also reflects locality, and we share these media experiences and others (like national television) with those who live around us. The global reach and interactivity of the Internet, however, is challenging this. Individuals can spend more time communicating and sharing experiences with others regardless of where they live. As Internet pioneer J.C.R. Licklider wrote back in the sixties, "Life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity."
Virtual communities are perfect for hobbyists and others with quirky or specialized interests--whether they're fans of swing music, chemistry professors or asthma sufferers. Indeed, these associations suggest the possibility of whole new forms of social life and participation. Because individuals are judged online by what they say, virtual communities would appear to soften social barriers erected by age, race, gender and other fixed characteristics. They can be particularly valuable for people who might be reticent about face-to-face social interaction, like gay and lesbian teenagers, political dissidents and the disabled. ("Long live the Internet," one autistic wrote in an online discussion, where "people can see the real me, not just how I interact superficially with other people.")
The Internet also gives individuals a new ability to personalize their news, entertainment and other information. And studies of Internet use show that users are doing so. Rather than having editors and producers choose what they read, hear and watch--as with newspapers or television--they are using the interactivity of the Net to gather just the material they find interesting. This may, among other things, be a winning strategy for dealing with the torrent of information that is increasingly pushed at us.
There is, in fact, plenty to like about personalization. But if we're not careful, customizing our lives to the hilt could undermine the strength and cohesion of local communities, many of which are already woefully weak. For all the uncertainty about what "community" really means and what makes one work, shared experience is an indisputably essential ingredient; without it there can be no chance for mutual understanding, empathy and social cohesion. And this is precisely what personalization threatens to delete. A lack of common information would deprive individuals of a starting point for democratic dialogue, or even fodder for the proverbial water-cooler talk. For many decades, TV and radio have been fairly criticized for drawing us away from direct interaction in our communities. Yet despite this shortcoming (and many others), these mass media at least provide "a kind of social glue, a common cultural reference point in our polyglot, increasingly multicultural society," as media critic David Shaw puts it.
Online experiences rarely provide this glue. Yes, we can share good times with others online who enjoy the same passions as we do. We can educate ourselves and even organize for political change. But ultimately, online associations tend to splinter into narrower and narrower factions. They also don't have the sticking power of physical communities. One important reason for this is the absence of consequences for offensive behavior online; another is the ease of exit for those who are offended. In physical communities, people are inextricably bound by the simple difficulty of picking up and leaving. On the Net, it's always "where do you want to go today?" Are you bored? Ticked off? Then move on! For many, this makes the virtual life an attractive alternative to the hard and often tiresome work of local community building.
Some might think that the weakness of online affiliations would prevent them from posing any real challenge to physical communities. But the ability to meander from one virtual gathering to the next, exploring and changing habitats on a whim, is exactly the problem. The fluidity of these social networks means that we may form weak bonds with others faraway at the expense of strong ties with those who live near us.
Few people, of course, intend to use the Internet in ways that will cause them to be distracted from local commitments. But technology always has unintended consequences, and social science research is beginning to show how this may be true for the Internet. Researchers who conducted one of the first longitudinal studies of the Internet's social impact, the HomeNet study, were surprised when their data suggested that Internet use increases feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression. Contrary to their starting hypotheses, they observed that regular users communicated less with family members, experienced a decline in their contacts with nearby social acquaintances and felt more stress. Although the authors noted the limitations of their findings, the study's methodology has been widely criticized. Until more conclusive results are available, however, what's important is that we take seriously the hazards outlined in the HomeNet study and attempt to prevent them from becoming worse or taking root in the first place.
And how should we do that? Neo-Luddites would likely recommend rejecting technology and returning to our bucolic roots. A more balanced and realistic response, however, calls for a reconciling of personal desire and communal obligations in a digital world. On the one hand, this means acknowledging the sometimes exhilarating adventure of indulging oneself online. No one can deny the value of being able to form relationships with far-flung others based solely on common interests. At the same time, it means not having illusions about the durability of those bonds or their ability to satisfy fully our deepest needs.
We must recognize, for selfish and societal reasons alike, the importance of focusing on the local. This is where we will find a true sense of belonging; shared experience, even if not ideal, creates a sense of commitment. This is where democracy and social justice must first be achieved; getting our own house in order is always the first priority. The Net must therefore be a vehicle not just for occasional escapism but for enhanced local engagement--online and off.