Now for some more evaluative comments on how Internet has pervaded our lives so thoroughly. In my last post I described my day-to-day activities online, but I didn’t really address the question that’s floating around – namely how does technology affect the way we communicate and relate, and is its effect good, bad, or value-neutral? In the spirit of my seven-year-old self, I’ve decided to do this pros and cons style. In addition to my own thoughts, two more posts on the subject caught my eye this week – Courtney at Feministing blogged from an airplane about staying healthy and balanced in the rush of all this information now available online, and Salon’s Vincent Rossmeier interviewed author Dennis Baron about the pros and cons of technology in our lives in an article entitled “Is the Internet Melting Our Brains?”
1) The Internet erases a lot of barriers. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. To many, the Internet is not affordable, inaccessible, or censored. But for those with hearing or speaking difficulties, those for whom leaving the house is a major task due to physical disabilities, or those who are simply difficult to understand due to a strong regional accent, the Internet makes it easier to communicate, and communicate frequently.
2) The Internet makes it easy to find people you like, and avoid people you don’t. Don’t get me wrong, now; I am not a huge advocate of “blocking” people unless they really are harassing you, but I do think the Internet is a lifesaver when it comes to finding people with whom you really connect and those with common interests/personality traits/desires/backgrounds. Growing up in North Carolina, the Internet was a major tool for me in finding out about queer lifestyles and finding other queer teenagers in my area. Even locally, it was hard to meet each other for safety and reputational concerns, but online we could find one another in online “safe spaces,” often using a screenname at first, then building trust through conversations and exchanging real details or meeting up in person. These preliminary conversations also make it easy to take time figuring out with whom you connect and with whom you don’t, as opposed to in-person meetings where you may get “stuck” with a friend who is completely unlike you or conversationally incompatible. Rather than the “closed” environment of school or work, the Internet is an “open environment” where you can consciously search for people that are easy to bond with. This logic also extends to information – not only do you choose with whom you communicate, you can choose your sources of information. The Internet makes it possible to get all your news from a feminist or liberal lens, to keep up to date on completely obscure topics with Google Alerts, and to research incredibly quickly. Whatever we think about the decline of print journalism, I do think that the existence of the Internet helps to keep traditional journalists honest.
3) The Internet provides access to people in completely different parts of the world. On the same train of thought, a great thing about online communication is that you can find the people with whom you best connect, wherever they may be. You can form a close friendship or even a romantic relationship with someone thousands of miles away, and maybe meet up in person, providing an opportunity to go somewhere you never would’ve gone before. I have very close friends in Birmingham, England, in West Texas, in California, in France, and in Pittsburgh that I initially met on the Internet. Once I flew as far as Reno, Nevada to meet an “online friend.” These are amazing opportunities that I wouldn’t give up for anything. The Internet also helps build specific communities that can be safe havens for those in small towns, rural areas, or countries where a particular community is small or non-existent. People who are queer, feminist, speak a “foreign” language, etc. can find people online on the same camp, if not in person. Dan Savage loves to talk on his podcast about how folks with the most bizarre fetishes can now type that phrase into Google and find fifty other people out there like them. It may be a joke, but hey, in reality, isn’t that a pretty powerful thing?
4) The Internet is good for multitasking. You can do a lot of things online, and you can do many of them quickly. The Internet gives you a certain amount of control, despite the fact that it can suck you in sometimes. You can have an instant message conversation running (or three), be typing a blog post, and have a program watching for any new e-mail coming in (yes, that’s me right now). It’s not rude online to disappear for brief periods of time, and it’s less obvious than if you’re chatting on the phone and fall silent because you’re checking your e-mail. You can find out things you need to know very quickly, whether that’s the definition of a word, someone’s phone number, the weather, a quote, the name of a song, or who’s living where right now. None of those things take very much time or interrupt anything else you’re doing. It makes your day-to-day life faster, as well as keeping your “online life” flowing. It’s also nice to be able to control information flow, whether that’s pausing a streaming Rachel Maddow video or reading your news on and off throughout the day.
1) Lack of a physical connection. This is probably the biggest downside of using the Internet as your primary tool for communication. There’s something to be said for seeing a face, hearing a voice, feeling a touch. We do communicate differently online (see the next point), and there can be a loss to not seeing one another in person. I do think those in an older generation can exaggerate that loss, but it’s there. Typing something like *hugs* is not the same thing real physical comfort. There are also the same kinds of conversational flaws present online as in real life. For example, I don’t like being at a party full of people and feeling like no one is paying attention to me as an individual person. I like to think that the Internet, by making it okay to multitask and pause regularly in conversation, creates more of a “one-on-one” connection – the person I’m instant messaging with may be running around, doing other things, talking to others, but we’re still alone in that window, having a conversation. However, it’s easy to feel ignored in an online conversation, too, when there are long pauses, or you’re always the one initiating the conversation and they’re always the first to leave. It creates some intimacy, but it doesn’t make up for people simply wanting to be somewhere else, if that’s the case.
2) People communicate differently online. This is the flip side of #2 on the pros. The “wall” that the Internet puts up can make people more open online, for example, and make it easier to talk, but the same person could be a terrible conversationalist in public. Some might say that the person is cheating, faking, lying… I don’t agree, but I do find this problematic if I really click with someone online and then we decide to be “real life” friends and it’s terribly awkward.
3) The online world may be pretty, but it’s not always real. In addition to the problem that those who can access the Internet are necessarily able to afford it, or live somewhere that has a free public library, there is also the problem that a high degree of control is a form of censoring. In my online bubble, there are few conservatives, no religious zealots, no homophobes, no racists, etc. But in the real world, these elements do exist. It’s easy to ignore a problem or walk away from a conversation that you don’t experience in real life. I don’t buy into the whole “bloggers don’t solve problems, they only talk about them” thing, but I do think that the Internet can be very insulated and educated. I have quite a few real-life friends that I would not necessarily “pick” at first glance – friends who are very conservative, very evangelical, strongly pro-life. I have family members who are homophobic, racist, and suspicious of anyone with a college degree. And I do think that my life is richer for knowing these people, even if some of their viewpoints drive me up a wall. To some extent, maybe the Internet sanitizes that.
The moral of the story?
I have no idea. I do think that in the end, it comes down to balance. It’s good to meet people online, but it’s good to have connections in your own city or town as well. Physically, it’s probably a health benefit to get those eyes away from the screen. Emotionally, it’s important to have actual touch, physical contact, from time to time. I miss social interactions like dinner parties, and I wouldn’t mind bringing those back. But at the same time, I’m eternally grateful for my best friends, and if I have to fly halfway around the world to see some of them, or if I am never able to see some of them, then that’s all right by me.