Internet Good, Pew Finds

The Internet is good, according to a survey of 895 "technology stakeholders," pundits, and other experts by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center, inquiring about the effects of email, social networks, and other social media. Specifically, a large majority of respondents (85%) agreed that, "In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the Internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future."

The findings of the survey aren't really terribly surprising, for a couple reasons. First of all, many of the respondents are deeply involved in the Internet for business, advocacy, or punditry: the group of respondents includes Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Jeff Jarvis, associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism; Clay Shirky, an author who writes about the Internet and teaches new media at NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program; Esther Dyson, an investor in tech start-ups who also writes about the Internet; and Nicholas Carr, a writer whose publications include The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google.

What's more surprising (and interesting to me) is the 14% of respondents who agreed with the opposite statement, specifically, that "In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future."

I actually agree with some of the complaints attributed to the negative respondents by Pew: for example, it's certainly possible that "time spent online robs time from important face-to-face relationships," and that "the internet fosters mostly shallow relationships."

But these are merely two possibilities among many. As I have argued before, these kinds of negative outcomes are more reflective of individual choices and personal characteristics than any inherent quality of the technology itself; furthermore, it is foolish -- and even dangerous -- to confuse a morally neutral technology with the uses some people make of it. This is dangerous primarily because it allows people to blame the technology rather than dealing with their own shortcomings: If you find yourself spending less time on important face-to-face relationships than you would like, maybe you should put down the friggin' BlackBerry. If you think you are stuck in shallow relationships, maybe you could try making them deeper. If you realize you don't know how, maybe you are realizing something about yourself.

The same is true of other complaints. For example, the negative cohort agreed that "the Internet allows people to silo themselves, limiting their exposure to new ideas." But if someone with access to the Web -- the biggest, freest exchange of information in human history -- ends up living in their own personal echo chamber, then that must be result of their own decisions (and they almost certainly would have ended up in the same ideological cubbyhole without the Web).

Likewise, another complaint was that "the Internet is being used to engender intolerance." Once again, it not like the Internet invented ignorance and stupidity, and this association may ignore the Internet's potential for monitoring, policing, and combating intolerance. Indeed, I would encourage hate groups of all stripes to maintain Web sites and public message boards, and while they're at it they might want to provide their email addresses and passwords to the FBI as well.

Not all the complaints were psychosocial. More straightforward drawbacks cited by the "negative 14%" include "the act of leveraging the internet to engage in social connection exposes private information." This one is obviously the real (huge) issue, given recent controversies surrounding new social media initiatives from Facebook and Google, and it must be dealt with if social media is to thrive in the future, and prove the Debbie Downers wrong.

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