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The Net: A Cause of Social Disconnect (Culture)

By electricmonk
Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 11:30:46 AM EST

Do media/entertainment technologies connect or disconnect people? That Americans have become increasingly disconnected from one another and the social capital that binds people since the rise of TV and the Net is an idea much debated since Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community three years ago (the book is now out in paperback). The Net -- ironically the world' s most connective medium -- could be radically advancing that trend.


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Putnam cites numerous surveys that show that interaction with family, friends, and neighbors, and participation in social activities -- from joining civic groups and bowling leagues to voting -- has declined as Americans find more reasons to stay at home. Online, fragmentation abounds. People turn increasingly inward. The big open spaces of the Net have either been corporatized, flamed to death or shut down, and communications steadily turned to exclusive p2p "me media," the fragmented, often self-censored, personalized and specialized weblogs, IM programs and mailing lists that dominate much of online communications.

In his book, Putnam argues that our access to the "social capital" that is the payoff for community and civic work is shrinking. Though the reasons are complex, technology and mass media are primary factors, Putnam says. We spend more time at home watching TV (and, increasingly, working and amusing ourselves online) and less with other people. Our detachment from communal efforts -- and opportunities to meet other people -- grows. In 1960, 62.8 percent of voting-age Americans went to the polls to choose between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon; in 1996, after decades of slippage, just 48.9 percent chose Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. The inverse correlation between the rise of screen-driven entertainment technologies and civic disconnection is persuasive. So is the epidemic hostility online.

Although Putnam's book focuses on TV more than the Net (since TV is older and its use has been more widely studied), it's impossible not to think about the new ways networked computing may contribute to this disconnection. The Net is the world's greatest communications medium, but the notion of cyberspace as providing a social connection -- remember the virtual community? -- has turned out to be a fantasy. In many ways, the intensely connective Net is helping people become more disconnected all the time. It's the new TV.

This is of no small consequence, Putnam argues. Social bounds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. Communities with low social capital have poor schools, more teen pregnancies and child or youth suicide, and higher prental mortality. Social capital is also the most reliable indicator of crime rates and other measurable quality-of-life issues. Such disconnection has happened before in American life, Putnam writes, especially during periods of great migration and immigration, but it was reversed by periods of stability and the rise of organizations like the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, and thriving religious organizations.

Of all the many dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, writes Putnam, perhaps the most important is the distinction between "bridging" (or inclusive) and "bonding" (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, he writes, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups -- fraternal organizations, church-based women's reading groups, snooty country clubs. Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse and different social networks -- youth service groups, civil rights organizations, ecumenical religious associations.

The Net, it was originally believed, would be a "bridging" technology, one that would connect the planet. But the most interesting evolution in software in recent years has been code that permits people to narrow, not expand, their universes. Blocking and filtering software has become epidemic to product against flamers, crackers and spammers. The explosion in weblogs, specialized mailing lists, instant messaging and other so-called p2p media means that people online increasingly talk only to one another, not to people who are different or unfamiliar. The rise of this narcissistic communications is understandable, but it hardly is inclusive. People all over the Web routinely block and filter points of view they don't like or don't want to hear (or buy), so nobody online really ever has to encounter all that discordant diversity that digital technology makes possible. More disconnection.

Thanks in part to the Net, Americans have never had so many reasons to stay home, so many entertaining or useful options when they do. I remember an e-mail I got from a grandmother last year lamenting all the TV ads showing AOL grandmas getting pictures of their grandchildren. "That's nonsense," she says. "My kids don't visit me nearly as much because they feel they can just e-mail me. I love digital pictures, but I rarely get to see my grandchildren in person." Her lament -- the illusion of connection, while facing the reality of tech-spawned separation -- was intriguing.

The rise of the Net would seem to have exacerbated this tendency. Americans had already been spending an enormous amount of time watching television. Putnam found that 80 percent of all Americans watch some TV every evening, while only about 60 percent talk with their families nightly, let alone neighbors, strangers or others. Watching TV has become one of the few universal experiences of contemporary American life.

Increasingly, the Net is one too. It promises consumer use as great as television's, if not greater, since work connects with home. This seems especially ironic, since the Net was supposed to be one of the most powerful devices ever for connecting with humans. Mostly, it connects us with bits and links. In a sense, it is a connective medium. We can stay in touch with friends, colleagues and family members all over the planet. But Americans use the Net to get free data from music to weather, send messages, play games, shop and talk about sex. So the Net could exacerbate the techno-trend that television began. We're e-mailing and browsing alone as well as bowling. The Net could have an ever more striking impact, since it enables users to do things TV doesn't -- like play games and shop for nearly everything. Those, among others, were activities that people once had to go outside to do, where they might glimpse or even speak with a neighbor -- or go bowling.

America was founded partly on the notion of common civic spaces -- taverns, greens. A lot of cyber-idealists thought the Net was becoming our new common space. That hasn't happened. Nasty teenagers, spammers and greedy corporatists have made common turf on the Net either too expensive, hostile or annoying for most people to spend much time on.

Putnam's idea about social capital might be even more timely relevant than he understood.

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The Net: A Cause of Social Disconnect | 101 comments (80 topical, 21 editorial, 0 hidden)
cause-and-effect (none / 0) (#88)
by ZorbaTHut on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 07:03:29 PM EST

I'm not responding to most of this because I don't have any good clear opinions on it :P But there's one thing that really hit me as a badly thought-out argument . . .

"Communities with low social capital have poor schools, more teen pregnancies and child or youth suicide, and higher prental mortality."

He's making the implication that low social capital - watching TV, using the internet, etc - causes all these. I question this. There's no proof that it's a causal relationship, or even in what direction it's causal. I find it a *lot* more likely that poor areas of the city (1) have poorer schools which provide (2) worse sex education. I find it also likely that this poor area with bad education and no real options causes depression, leading to (3) suicide. And, hey, why would someone put an expensive hospital in a slum? (4) worse health care.

So here you are, living in a slum with bad schools, teenage pregnancies, a suicide every few weeks, and horrible hospitals, and you're expecting people to go out and invite their neighbors over for a barbeque?

I don't find it surprising at *all* that they'd stay inside and watch TV . . . so what we've just concluded here, entirely on the basis of heresy and possibly-inaccurate inference, is that poor areas watch more TV.

Bet you $5 that it's a demonstratable correlation, and we've arrived at this conclusion much more logically and openly that he's arrived at his . . . and ours *still* could be just a coincidence.

Congratulations! You've voted for JonKatz! (5.00 / 4) (#81)
by electricmonk on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 06:33:34 PM EST

Please take a moment to contemplate the following: you have all voted to the front page of Kuro5hin a JonKatz article. Thank you for bringing Slashdot's delightful content and JonKatz's insight to your favorite community site. Even if he did fabricate the whole of his correspondance with "Junis", you can't deny that he's a great writer. Thus, I always knew that, deep down inside, all of you Slashdot-haters were just looking for a reason to practice elitism. Because you love JonKatz.

Extra props to go Rusty and the K5 democratic process, without which this article would not be possible. After all, with peer review, all bugs are shallow. Oh, and Rusty? Thanks for your FP vote. It really helped in the end.

"There are only so many ways one can ask [Jon Katz] what it's like to be buried to the balls in a screaming seven-year-old" - Ian
Survey data says the Net doesn't disconnect (none / 0) (#80)
by carmenmiranda on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 06:33:29 PM EST

If you look at data from large-scale surveys of Netizens, it appears that Net use does not decrease face-to-face social connection.
Barry Wellman et al's fascinating article in American Behavioural Scientist finds that frequent users of email meet their family and friends face-to-face on average just as often as rare users of email do (tables 2 and 3). According to UCLA's Internet Study, most Internet users believe their Internet use has no influence on the amount time they spend face-to-face with their family or their friends (p.62). The same study finds that Internet users watch less TV (p.33).

In 1893, Cosmopolitan magazine (no relation to the modern magazine) predicted that the telephone would allow families to conduct their social lives remotely, meeting others only on rare ceremonial occasions. (Cited by Randy Connolly, Online Communities ch.16.) Despite a century of widespread telephone use, this doesn't appear to have become a majority lifestyle.

Peace and love, Carmenmiranda

another question (none / 0) (#79)
by relief on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 06:03:19 PM EST

Usually I find that elders are much more social in general, much more outgoing and elloquent in their speech. I wonder, whether this kind of disparity is merely an issue of age, or a drastic worldwide change of generations. Imagine for once if the latter is true; in just a handful of generations we would have people roaming this earth that don't communicate in person, head drooped down, avoiding any sort of eyecontact, mind heavy and full of internet residue.

didn't katz post this goofy story on /. ? (none / 0) (#77)
by bukvich on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 05:18:58 PM EST

If I get really bored I may try and find the link.

Hmm, call me a sceptic. (5.00 / 1) (#73)
by bigbtommy on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 03:25:34 PM EST

The basis of this is that as people spend more time slouched in front of PC's, they spend less time outside in 'meatspace' (scoff).

I'd disagree with that - the net has enabled informal friendship groups to meet more often: I can use it to organise with mates when and where to meet. A number of people I know are already members of the same message boards, and with the use of instant messangers, it makes consulting each other as to where to meet up, party and have fun easier and cheaper.

Our virtual community has made it so we can have more connections.

It's also helped me find others with similar interests - I am a member (not particularly active, mind you, but that's another issue.) of a number of meetup sites (the Webloggers and the Kuro5hin sites in specific). I intend to pop along occasionally, when I have time.

Another element that I picked up in your article is that of filtering - the reference to "me media" and the requirement to use filtering / blocking software.

We filter in real life. There are people who we ignore. Advertisers have to fight against mental ad blocks (who notices banner advertss anymore?) by coming up with new and innovative mediums. We naturally filter in our mind what we want to see in the real world, and condition it to our own way of thinking.

While the idea of PC Slouching might impact a little on how much people socialise, I'd say that for a new generation, the Internet actually empowers them to see the world and meet it's people.

The other word I picked out was "corporatized". If anything, I'd say the opposite. With the rise in free and open source software, it's now easier than ever to start up your own areas on the Internet. I mean, content management / weblogging software like Scoop, Slash, Drupal, Nuke, Movable Type and Blogger are free. Message boards are twenty to the dozen these days, with many free and cheap hosts.

Compare a few hundred megs of database hosting to how much it takes to start up your own cable or satellite TV station, or even radio station, or print magazine, or published book. It's the cheapest media to publish in ever.

And in terms of things like political activity, it's done enormous amounts. Here in the UK, sites like FaxYourMP.com have enabled people to easily fire off notes to their MP on all sorts of issues. With issues such as e-privacy, freedom limitations etc. it has been known for MP's to get thousands of faxes, and have been literally bombarded (or Slashdotted). This has led to repeal or weakening of numerous contreversial and (from a libertarian perspective) bad acts and decisions.

All in all, I'd say that while this is an interesting thesis, some of it is, in my opinion, rather inaccurate.
No War! We cannot allow it.

Community Spirit (4.50 / 2) (#68)
by rf0 on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 03:02:35 PM EST
(rf at rf0 dot com) http://www.65535.net

I live in a small village in the UK. When first coming to the village I didn't know anyone, and was living alone. I was always under the impression that village life was friendly but not once did someone make an effort to come and say hi. What occured to me is that you have to go out and make the effort.

People won't come to you unless you goto them first. So that is what I did. Along with my gf we started things like neighbour hood watch which starts to bring the sence of community back. What the author is saying is quit true, people won't make the effort but it only takes one person to get the ball rolling and everything can come off that.

Go out and say hi to your next door neighbour and you might be surprised what happens


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It is not media/entertainment that is disconecting (4.66 / 3) (#60)
by modmans2ndcoming on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 02:23:06 PM EST

what is casuing the disconnect of people is the increase in ability to communicate effectivly from remote locations. to talk to my friends, if that is all I wish to do, it is easier to just log onto AIM and have a talk with them all than it is for me to go over to one of their homes...now, we do all go over once a week to one of our homes but that is so we can do things like pool or bowling etc.

cell phones and PDAs with E-mail etc. all of these increase our ability to communicate but reduce our personal contact.

I disagree (4.80 / 5) (#55)
by composer777 on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 01:43:59 PM EST

The net is a unifying technology.  What we are seeing is only the beginning.  If you need evidence, you need only look at the massive anti-war protests that occured over the last few months.  These never would have happened without the internet.  I think that people withdrawing from community is a part of the healing process from over 40 years of television.  They are using the net because they don't know where to start with their neighbors, and because the majority of people are still asleep and watching television.  The net gives people a safe way to "re-connect" and voice opinions that they are still afraid to voice in society.  The fact that they are afraid to voice these opinions should show just what a damaging and stifling effect television and other propaganda have had.  First people find each other on the internet.  As the massive amounts of propaganda start to wear off and people become more aware of the agenda that is being launched against them, eventually you will see entire communities re-awakening.  The reason that the internet seems to be causing more disconnect is that most of the community projects that people were involved in must have not been very satisying, they didn't have any substance to begin with.  I expect that in the next ten to twenty years, there will be a radical re-awakening of community participation and activisim.  

I think the author is arguing that the rejection of the current superficial, ultra-capitalist culture and turning to the net is somehow destructive.  I disagree, the net is finally helping people to wake up, and to find their voice.  These things are a healthy and necessary part of any functioning democratic society.  The forms of "connect" that are dying are those that were dead to begin with.  

The thesis doesn't fit experience (5.00 / 3) (#54)
by wytcld on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 01:39:45 PM EST

The Net isn't just good for finding online communities which fit ones own interests, but for finding communities "on the ground." In recent months both I and a former room mate have found new towns to live in, where the Net played a great part in our searches and decisions. Thing is, the Net doesn't represent "cyberspace" - some other realm - but real space. It can be used not just to retreat from where you are (not a bad option in all too much of current America) but to advance to new places. Getting people to the places where they're most likely to thrive is a pretty good trick. And - perhaps no coincidence - in the cases of both the former room mate and myself, we've moved to places with more community involvement.

So the competing premise is that it was a better world when we could count on half of our neighbors having also seen "I Love Lucy" the night before? How, exactly, did that technology help anyone find a better place for themselves, aside from encouraging a sort of alienated placelessness - since, unlike the Net, it did not map at any level of detail to the real world?

Another Opinion. (5.00 / 3) (#50)
by Count Zero on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 01:07:07 PM EST

For an interesting counterpoint to Putnam's theories, try Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class, in which he specifically devotes space to what he thinks is wrong with Putnam's theories.

I don't have the book handy for more detailed sourcing, but one interesting fact is that communities with high amounts of Putnam's social capital also have very low rates of economic growth. Florida theorizes that the type of socially conservative, insular communities Putnam favors do not do a good job at attracting the kind of of people upon which economic growth is most dependant.

"There's something conservatives have to learn here which is that a market is not a spontaneous creation. It doesn't just pop out of the social soil like dandelions out of a suburban lawn. It's a government creation." -George Will
Human nature (4.14 / 7) (#49)
by SleepDirt on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 12:56:05 PM EST
([log in to unmask])

Was America really founded on the notion of common civic spaces? It seems to be Americans have always been pretty close minded and prone to taking sides and throwing mud at each other. I'm not sure anyone should be surprised that they've turned the internet into just another forum for it. The most popular aspects of American life have been replicated online. We have a healthy selection of bias reporting, mud slinging, sex, consumerism, and entertainment. To bring this even further, how different is talking to my neighbor than chatting with someone leeching music from me on a P2P network? How different is a game of Unreal Tournament with my friends than going down to a smelly bowling alley? Honestly, I don't think there's much difference.

I don't see the logical connection between "nasty teenagers" and "greedy corporations" -- If you want to blame anyone I would blame the people who prefer sex, consumerism and mindless mudslinging to all the other things the internet has to offer. Unfortunately this just helps prove what most of us probably suspected: Most people are stupid, lazy and scared of the unknown.

"In a closed society where everybody's guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity." - Hunter S. Thompson
:Putnam's Irrationality (4.83 / 6) (#46)
by Baldrson on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 12:11:18 PM EST
([log in to unmask]) http://www.geocities.com/jim_bowery

Putnam doesn't point out the degree to which just reading a book of one's choosing can be viewed as "self censorship" excluding viewpoints one doesn't like -- just as with the Net. The local library's "bookworms" might have been seen as a social capital problem -- particularly by the local preachers who would prefer that people just come into their sermons and read the Bible. Sometimes those damn bookworms got ideas that were hostile to to Christianity! If we really want to address this problem and preserve "social capital" of Putnam's value system then we should get rid of universal literacy! This is no joke or troll -- the wars of the Protestant Reformation were fought for over a hundred years due to the Guttenberg press destroying the "social capital" of the Catholic church. Putnam can't see the fact that broadcast media -- like Catholicism's early monopoly on religious memes, has its antithesis in decentralizing sources of memes.

He's not for rational allowance of technical compensation for technology's problems -- he's not even a Luddite -- he's a priest.

-------- Dominant United States Influences --------

Less headaches (5.00 / 5) (#42)
by endersgame20052005 on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 11:59:23 AM EST
([log in to unmask]) endersgame20052005

I think it comes down to just two things, we like convenient friendships, without the hassle and certainly without the baggage, you know like your friend comes over to your place, outstays their welcome, and proceeds to bore you to death with the trivialities of their lives, or calls at 2 in the morning just to talk. Online you just log off, and meet again when you feel like it, and the simplicity of meeting people online, no one knows what you look like, your religion, color of your skin, political beliefs, they may know that you have a certain hobby, interest, and that's good enough for them. We live in a society that judges people on appearances, status, color and so on, all this is eliminated online unless you decide to get into a pissing match as to who is right or wrong. And the information you can get is just amazing, you might have sensitive things you want to talk about and going over to the neighbor is just not an option, but you ask online and it all just comes out, you don't have to feel like a fool, for asking a question.

Were it not for the Net. . . . (5.00 / 5) (#34)
by IHCOYC on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 10:30:26 AM EST
([log in to unmask]) http://members.iglou.com/gustavus

. . . it isn't like I'd be out somewhere drinking, doing Red Cross volunteer work, or whatever.

Instead, I'd stay home and read. It's what I did before the Net arrived. At least with the Net I interact with someone.

Now I will admit that what I read on the Net probably covers a wider base of subjects more shallowly than the books I used to entertain myself with. I find now that I have less and less use for fiction; when I give time to a book, I want to learn something semi-useful from it. I am not sure this is an improvement.

It still strikes me as false to my own experience that the Net has made me less gregarious. I was not gregarious before I even had a computer. If anything, it allows me to interact with people better, by letting me do so on my own terms and in the time of my choosing.
The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.

  --- Susan Sontag

Hermits (5.00 / 5) (#30)
by duffbeer703 on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 10:21:26 AM EST

Most Americans today isolate themselves from the rest of society.

Just look at new houses... they are built far from the road, often without even a front porch. Many houses in suburban developments are built to give you the illusion that you live in the countryside... windows on the side of the house are kept to a minimum so your neighbors remain hidden.

I grew up in an old neighborhood in Queens, NY. Everybody used to sit on the front porch or patio and talk to the neighbors or passers-by. Kids would play outside in the street or in a neighbors yard. Now, drive down a suburban cul-de-sac or middle class neighborhood... there's no kids outside, nobody sitting out front. Everyone is watching TV and playing Nintendo in the air-conditioned house.

The net isn't the cause of disconnect, just a symptom.

da revolution (3.00 / 1) (#28)
by flowerbear on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 09:33:48 AM EST
([log in to unmask]) http://www.gchq.gov.uk

"the revolution will not be televised" of course it will be webcast on CNN.
flowerbear charlottesville va us [log in to unmask] FORTRAN programers don't eat quiche!!
+1 fp (2.50 / 2) (#26)
by circletimessquare on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 09:19:51 AM EST

because the discussion is good, even though i disagree with your message.

when the tv was introduced, it was touted as a great leap forward in education.


when the computer was introduced, there was much talk of a reduction in paper use.

the reverse happened. laser printers ate more trees than ever before.

when the net was introduced, there was much talk of the death of cities and everyone working from home/ choosing to live further away from cities and telecommuting.

the reverse happened, urban centers are denser and urban property values are skyrocketing.

much with your thesis here about the social disconnect. it seems evident how your idea makes sense on a first glance/ in a shallow way: more friends on the net, less friends in real life.

but it is more complex than that. i would submit that the net merely supplements your meatspace social life. cyberlife social life does not supplant meatspace social life. it in fact provides for new avenues by which meatspace connections can be made.

sorry for the use of the term "meatspace" and the internet. the undersexed nerds amongst us can now let out their giggles and state the obvious jokes. ;-P
C:\>tracert life.liberty.pursuit-of-happiness
Meh (2.50 / 2) (#24)
by Filthy Socialist Hippy on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 06:47:43 AM EST
([log in to unmask])

Whatever.  Rasslin' time.

leftist, you don't love America, you love what America with all its wealth and power can be if you turn it into a socialist state. - thelizman
YEAH! (3.00 / 2) (#22)
by tang gnat on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 02:47:36 AM EST

Social disconnection rocks!

Think about it. Maybe it's a good thing.

Narcissistic my foot (5.00 / 8) (#17)
by arvindn on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 12:45:22 AM EST

People all over the Web routinely block and filter points of view they don't like or don't want to hear (or buy)

I'm disagreeing with you, and you haven't blocked me.

Seriously, this is very difficult to do on the web. You can have communities filtering people based on their interests, but rarely based on their points of view. For example: slashdot is supposed to be a pro-linux site, right? Yet I find a good 25-30% of the posts defending MS even in stories about a new security hole etc.

Blocking and filtering software has become epidemic to product against flamers, crackers and spammers.

This is ridiculous. Filtering spam increases disconnection? All those who wish you were better connected with penis enlargement marketers put up your hand please.
Test your vocabulary: 20 questions.
+1 nonsense... (5.00 / 15) (#16)
by motty on Mon Apr 14th, 2003 at 12:42:40 AM EST

Conflating the internet and TV is as absurd as conflating one-to-many and many-to-many media. It can be done, but only at the expense of being less able to say sensible things about either one. They are very different in content, in the way they are produced, in the physical and economic infrastructures that support them and in the patterns of people's interactions with them, Any superficial similiarities that one may wish to draw from comparing their impacts are just that - superficial similiarities. The internet's not the new TV.

Saying "the notion of cyberspace as providing a social connection -- remember the virtual community? -- has turned out to be a fantasy" in an online community strikes me as self-evidently absurd. Er, welcome to k5, electricmonk. You could - please don't, but you could - describe k5 as a virtual community. We don't have buildings or parks or tennis clubs or anything like that; k5 is a community made from rusty's software and the words and interactions of the people who have been here, are here, and will be here. That's what it is, there's rather a lot of people here now, and while you may dismiss it as a fantasy I promise it is as real as any virtual community can be. You're really writing an article which real people are really voting on, commenting on, rating one another's comments on, etc etc. You could argue that you don't want to call it a virtual community, but it won't stop being one. Virtual communities are self-evidently much more loose than physical communities; this problably has something to do with them being virtual and not physical. Denying their existence makes as much sense as denying the existence of Omaha.

You write further that "Blocking and filtering software has become epidemic to protect against flamers, crackers and spammers." Unpicking this, I can't make much sense of it. People block emails from spammers and from people they do not wish to hear from precisely in order that they may get email from people they do wish to get email from. Similiarly, they protect their systems against unwanted intrusion precisely in order that the system should still be there when they wish to communicate with the people they do wish to communicate with. The software you describe is a feature of the technical infrastructure in online communities such that routes are found around any problems which may arise in the extremely messy business of creating computer tools that are useful in human relationships (email, websites, etc). More connectivity, not disconnectivity.

Certainly, people all over the internet do indeed routinely block and filter points of view they don't like or don't want to hear, but - and I hope this doesn't come as a surprise to you - they have a marked tendency to do this offline as well. It's not the internet's fault. (I have yet to find any email filter that will remove things I don't like or want to hear; I wouldn't want to run that but I'd love to see how it was written). As it happens, I find myself exposed to points of view I don't like all the time, both online and elsewhere. Either I'm particularly narrowminded (which may be the case) or - maybe - it is not the existence of online community which is the fantasy, it is the idea that anyone anywhere can completely block points of view they don't like, and remain both sane and without a personal secret police force and bodyguard. Prior to the internet, people could more successfully block out that which was objectional to them, because they had less (often no) access to it. With continued internet use, anyone online is liable to find something to cause steam to come out of their ears eventually. This seems to me to be more connectivity and less disconnectivity. Not much, perhaps, but some.

You go on to say "The explosion in weblogs, specialized mailing lists, instant messaging and other so-called p2p media means that people online increasingly talk only to one another, not to people who are different or unfamiliar." This too is meaningless in the context of disconnection; it is actually a persuasive argument in favour of the continued existence of virtual online community. People - talking to each other. Yep. That's exactly what it is. You only get to meet people for the first time once each - it's something to do with the way meeting people works. After you've already met someone, you seem to be implying that any continued conversation in the medium somehow doesn't count in terms of whether or not there is disconnection. That doesn't make sense. It seems clear that the internet provides another space for people to talk to each other - and they do - which operates to alleviate existing disconnection, only in a loose way, using technical infrastructure that seriously limits the extent to which that alleviation goes.

The grandmother who wrote to you complaining that her grandchildren see her less because they feel they can email her is not a victim of any disconnectivity inherent in internet usage. She is instead a victim of having chosen to tell you (by email) about her relationship problems with her grandchildren rather than, say, telling her grandchildren about them. At risk of sounding callous, email sounds like it might be a good way of doing that. Both her and her grandchildren have my sympathies and I hope they can sort their problems out. However, there is no human disconnectivity going on in discussing her story. Here we have an example of both email and a website being used to communicate human feelings. Essentially, this person wishes she saw her grandchildren more. Many grandmothers do. Without email, you'd never have known it; without this site, I'd never have been able to use the story to point out that she would be much more disconnected without email if she were sitting at home unable to tell anyone about how much she wished her grandchildren would visit more. Don't imagine for a moment that everyone who reads k5 is the kind of person who will genuinely not feel sympathy for this woman. Some won't, sure, but some will. A small scale echo of human connection, yes, but something.

It is only the case that "nasty teenagers, spammers and greedy corporatists have made common turf on the Net either too expensive, hostile or annoying for most people to spend much time on" when you have decided to give in to them. Not everyone has given into them. I would urge you to consider also not giving into them. You don't have to talk to anyone you don't want to, you can filter out most spam, and you don't have to go to the greedy corporatist places. Also, computers themselves - forget the internet - are largely too expensive, hostile and annoying for most people to spend much time on. Frankly, you could say the same about books. So what? There is plenty of community with people to be found online, provided you are well aware of its limitations.

Putnam's book probably focussed more on the disconnective impact of television because it is clearly disconnective to have a large percentage of the population staring for hours on end at a box that flashes coloured lights at them, doesn't let them talk back and causes them to create deep emotional ties to fictional characters. Many other social forces exist that may be also leading to disconnection - politicians who lie, economic systems optimised for money itself rather than for human beings, management practices optimised for so-called efficiency over quality of output, the overpopulation problem of the planet, that part of the intellectual elite who labour mightily to convince us all that we are all essentially doomed to a meaningless and banal existence, and so forth. These things are never going to be wholly alleviated by the ability to have asynchronous text-based conversations on computer screens with strangers. But I have not found a single argument to show that internet connectivity in any way decreases human connectivity; the disconnectivity we experience is not being caused by your computer or your ISP.

I have come across a number of articles denying the existence of online community. They are usually written by people who have managed to complete their research into online communities without managing to find one of which they personally felt a part. It may be that you do not feel a part of any kind of community here on k5; that's a shame, but may mean nothing more than a need to go and find (or found) a community that you can feel a part of elsewhere. Not everyone feels a part of every online community there is; online community does not even provide that much. But it manifestly exists, manifestly reduces existing disconnection, and certainly from my own experience, has expanded my social space. If you never try to meet someone in a bar, you will never meet someone in a bar. Some people never do. For them to then claim that no-one ever meets anyone in bars would be very human, but also nonsense. The internet is not a cause of social disconnect. It alleviates social disconnect a bit. The Net, by contrast, was a dodgy film starring Sandra Bullock.
I don't think it's a cause (4.77 / 9) (#11)
by Mysidia on Sun Apr 13th, 2003 at 11:42:23 PM EST

The Net, it was originally believed, would be a "bridging" technology, one that would connect the planet.

And so it has.

But the most interesting evolution in software in recent years has been code that permits people to narrow, not expand, their universes. Blocking and filtering software has become epidemic to product against flamers, crackers and spammers.

Spam-blocking software doesn't narrow your universe, it merely aims to stop the equivalent of the electronic telemarketer: advertisements. It helps prevent people from invading your universe. Connection of a society is not about people allowing the roaming salesmen to throw sales pitches at them in their living room uninvited.

Blocking software is made to shield users from unsolicited bulk e-mail, not legitimate individual communications.

The explosion in weblogs, specialized mailing lists, instant messaging and other so-called p2p media means that people online increasingly talk only to one another, not to people who are different or unfamiliar. The rise of this narcissistic communications is

I think all communications among people are to other people. People with common interests or a common location tend to congregate, this is not peculiar or unique to the online world. People seek to talk with others who have common things to talk about, whether they share an interest, a workplace, or a neighborhood.

In my view, this isn't narcissistic at all, it's just what people tend to do: to say it's narcissistic is to judge them, and that's not really fair, being that it's not unique to the electronic world in the slightest. Do you mean to say that people should try to connect first to people that don't care about the same things as they do?

That online weblogs are cliques and worse than the offline equivalent? That most readers/commenters of special-interest newsgroups/mailing lists/weblogs peruse only one? That weblogs and mailing lists are the be-all, end-all of internet communication? I don't believe any of that.

Don't forget the WWW in general. It is a medium where things said by one can be heard by many, it's just that, what you say has to be judged worthwhile by others, true, but that's mainly because there is so much competing to be heard, and only a limited number of things people can possibly be paid attention to at any particular time. People can find a way to disconnect from others if they want to, but they could do that anyways.

understandable, but it hardly is inclusive. People all over the Web routinely block and filter points of view they don't like or don't want to hear (or buy), so nobody online really ever has to encounter all that discordant diversity that digital technology makes

Disconnecting people who you find obnoxious or who attempt to communicate in an obnoxious way is normal and doesn't make the medium "disconnective". Even offline society has ways of 'blocking' people it finds obnoxious, we call that the criminal justice system, and yeah, once they've got their nice long sentence, they won't be going to crowded movie theatres to shout out their profanities that they and you might call legitimate communication.

-Mysidia the insane @k5+SN
Also, as content increases, connection decreases (4.77 / 9) (#9)
by Kasreyn on Sun Apr 13th, 2003 at 11:14:47 PM EST
(Check my Bio for contact info) http://www.bloomington.in.us/~kasreyn

I don't know where I originally read this (this was not my observation), but someone made an interesting point that went like this.

Back in the 50's (before I was born, so this is hearsay =P), even TV wasn't a complete social disconnector. There were so few channels that you could step out on your porch after a show and ask your neighbor "Hey, Fred, you see that?" "Gee whiz, yeah! Amazing!". You could have shared experiences. IMO, it doesn't matter socially whether shared experiences are of playing ball together, going to a movie, or watching the same program on TV - they're still shared experiences. But with 500+ channels on TV now and billions of web pages on the internet, there is so much content to choose from that pretty much no two people have similar enough experiences to have any feeling of shared experience.

I'm not saying more content is a bad thing, I'm just pointing out that it seems to me that the more, let's say individually-tailored content it is, the less chance there is of any two people finding common ground through it.

If you think I'm wrong, reply, don't moderate. =P


"Come fill the cup and in the fire of spring
Your winter garment of repentence fling.
The bird of time has but a little way
To flutter - and the bird is on the wing."

-Omar Khayyam.
Been going on since the dawn of man (4.80 / 5) (#7)
by SocratesGhost on Sun Apr 13th, 2003 at 11:11:23 PM EST

Waaaaay back when, we were living in communal relationships. We shared the cave and possibly even each other's warmth when we slept. Society was "open" in the sense that there was no expectation of privacy. Everything was open. Property was non-existent. Depending on the culture, hiding and hording would occasionally bring about death to the offender.

Through the ages, however, we have been seeking greater privacy and isolation for each individual. The Middle Ages had extended families (and sometimes multiple families) living under one roof. Privacy was usually maintained inside the household, but there was no guarantee of that. Most means of civil enforcement had to artificially make all members of the group visible. A person who errantly went into a communal pea patch was a thief if it wasn't at the appointed time when everyone else was there; taxes would be levied on villages, and it was the village as a whole that had to come up with the money for the ruling lord. You could hide the money, but you'd be responsible for handing it over anyway.

This trend accelerated in modern society, and now the individual is capable of almost complete isolation. The expectation of privacy is growing absolute and we seek to make even our public actions into issues of privacy. For example, the public has privacy concerns over the library records provisions in the Patriot Act, although borrowing books is a public action. Even the argument for prostitution (e.g. what happens between two consenting adults is their own business) implies elements of privacy.

The Internet is another symptom of this, but it has less to do with technology than you think. The technology hasn't isolated us. It's allowed us to evolve where we've been trying to go for a long time. To butcher a relevant quote: even if the Internet had never existed, man would have found it necessary to invent it.

I drank what?
Minor quibble. (4.37 / 8) (#6)
by kitten on Sun Apr 13th, 2003 at 11:10:59 PM EST
([log in to unmask]) http://mirrorshades.org/wc

In 1960, 62.8 percent of voting-age Americans went to the polls to choose between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon; in 1996, after decades of slippage, just 48.9 percent chose Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. The inverse correlation between the rise of screen-driven entertainment technologies and civic disconnection is persuasive.

Exactly what does this have to do with the Internet and online communication?

I think it's far more likely that people are beginning to realize that voting is essentially a waste of time, and that the only difference in who is in office is a minor shift in federal spending. The general decline of voter turnout is because people are fed up and disillusioned with the system. Frankly I think it's a messege the politicians should be paying attention to - when half of your population isn't even bothering going to the polls, that's a powerful messege right there.

The comparisions are also pre- and post-Watergate, which I think accounts for a lot of people's disgust for politicians in general.

"What a piece of work is man..
In action, how like an angel,
In apprehension, how like a god."

Connectivity (4.20 / 5) (#5)
by DeepOmega on Sun Apr 13th, 2003 at 10:43:56 PM EST

Seems to me, the net is what you make it. Personally, I find that it does a damn fine job of allowing me to communicate with friends who life too far away for me to see regularly. I can chat on AIM, e-mail, etc., all with far more ease than the phone. The key is, the web should only be used to supplement real-life interaction. The phone definitely beats out the web for personalness, and meatspace is even better. An example:

I met my girlfriend online. She lives rather far away, so I chat with her late into the night, pretty much every day. But that doesn't come close to talking on the phone with her, and that can't touch meeting in real-life. Without the web, we'd never have met.

I guess, the best way to summarize is, the web allows for faster, more frequent communication. This allows for the maintaining of long-distance relationships, but it cannot supplant them.

Peace and much love...
I don't think posting this here is going to help (5.00 / 15) (#3)
by pyramid termite on Sun Apr 13th, 2003 at 10:34:55 PM EST
([log in to unmask])

What with us being disconnected and all ...

God Bless America, where laws are passed to protect people from the legal system. - Anonymous Coward, Slashdot
The Net: A Cause of Social Disconnect | 101 comments (80 topical, 21 editorial, 0 hidden)
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