Sociable Is Sociable, In Any Medium

Whenever the Pew Internet & American Life Project releases findings regarding our culture and Web media, I take notice. Based here in Philadelphia, The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is the parent of the Washington-based Internet & American Life Project, provides research "designed to advance policy solutions and support civic life."

This week, Pew released a new report about the Web's ability to help people maintain a network of friends and supporters and to get assistance. As Wendy Davis reported in MediaPost yesterday, the report disputes the notion that increased use of the Web will lead to a future in which people interact with their computers at the expense of spending time with each other. "There has been this enduring fear that the Internet would turn us into a nation of hermits--that technology would take us away from people-to-people contact," said John B. Horrigan, associate director at the Pew Internet Project. "This study persuasively finds the opposite."



Some of you will also recall that this fear of a nightmare scenario in which we all would become more prone to social isolation, was the stated subtext behind the murderous efforts of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. If you're like me, and you had another career or careers before the dawn of Web media, you may have thought that this seeming isolation was not just a theory. Most people I know in our business spend hours online and exchange 300 e-mails a day or more. But, these are generally social types. What of those who are not so sociable?

Questions like that led me to disagree with this study's primary conclusion--that the Internet fits "seamlessly" with Americans' in-person and phone encounters, supplementing, rather than replacing, the communication people have with others in their network.

"The larger, the more far-flung, and the more diverse a person's network, the more important e-mail is," argues Jeffrey Boase, a University of Toronto sociologist who co-authored the Pew Internet Project report. "You can't make phone calls or personal visits to all your friends very often, but you can 'cc' them regularly with a couple of keystrokes. That turns out to be very important."

Okay--I'll go along with that conclusion. But time at the keyboard also displaces time that would be spent in actual contact with other people--which doesn't help those already isolated. If teenager A is fortunate enough to have a large social network, e-mail will supplement that network.

E-mail won't really help teenager B, who sits next to teenager A and is painfully shy, without anything resembling a social network. Teenager B may find virtual networking, from the likes of MySpace, to be a palliative, but not a replacement for the real thing.

And that's what this study seems unwilling to take into account. People with large social networks sometimes meet their friends and sometimes talk on the phone--social contact that the Web and e-mail often facilitates. Meanwhile, the Internet provides alternative means and an alternative solution for the socially isolated, displacing opportunities for these individuals to experience the real thing--and exacerbating the social stratification of actual communities.

It's hard to argue with the report's voluminous findings on the utility of the Web and e-mail. But I wish it had investigated less-sociable individuals, and had not limited its scope to adults only.

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