Do the Social Benefits of the Internet Outweigh the Negatives? Pew Report Says "Yes"

PrintA new report from the Pew Research Center cites a significant majority of technology experts and stakeholders participating in its fourth Future of the Internet survey as saying the Internet improves social relations and will continue to do so. While they acknowledge that use of the internet as a tool for communications can yield both positive and negative effects, the social benefits of Internet use will far outweigh the negatives over the next decade.

The study was jointly conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. The positive impression and forecast, the experts say, is because email, social networks, and other online tools offer “lowfriction” opportunities to create, enhance, and rediscover social ties that make a difference in people’s lives. The Internet lowers traditional communications constraints of cost, geography, and time; and it supports the type of open information sharing that brings people together.

PewGraphMost of the 895 technology stakeholders and critics who participated in the survey were effusive in their praise of the social connectivity already being leveraged globally online. They said humans’ use of the Internet’s capabilities for communication for creating, cultivating, and continuing social relationships is undeniable. Many enthusiastically cited their personal experiences as examples, and several noted that they had met their spouse through Internet-borne interaction.

Some survey respondents noted that with the Internet’s many social positives come problems. They said that both scenarios presented in the survey are likely to be accurate, and noted that tools such as email and social networks can and are being used in harmful ways. Among the negatives noted by both groups of respondents: time spent online robs time from important face-to-face relationships; the Internet fosters mostly shallow relationships; the act of leveraging the Internet to engage in social connection exposes private information; the Internet allows people to silo themselves, limiting their exposure to new ideas; and the Internet is being used to engender intolerance.

Many of the people who said the Internet is a positive force noted that it “costs” people less now to communicate some noted that it costs less money and others noted that it costs less in time spent, allowing them to cultivate many more relationships, including those with both strong and weak ties. They said “geography” is no longer an obstacle to making and maintaining connections; some noted that Internet-based communications removes previously perceived constraints of “space” and not just “place.”

Some respondents observed that as use of the Internet for social networks evolves there is a companion evolution in language and meaning as tech users redefine social constructs such as “privacy” and “friendship.” Other respondents suggested there will be new “categories of relationships,” a new “art of politics,” the development of some new psychological and medical syndromes that will be “variations of depression caused by the lack of meaningful quality relationships,” and a “new world society.”

A number of people said that as this all plays out people are just beginning to address the ways in which nearly “frictionless,” easy-access, global communications networks change how reputations are made, perceived, and remade. Many participants pointed out that while our tools are changing quickly, basic human nature seems to adjust at a slower pace.

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