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Internet And Social Life Essay

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Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2004. 55:X--X
doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141922
Copyright © 2004 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved



John A. Bargh and Katelyn Y.A. McKenna
New York University, New York, New York 10003; email: [email protected], [email protected]
Key Words communication, groups, relationships, depression, loneliness „ Abstract The Internet is the latest in a series of technological breakthroughs in interpersonal communication, following the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television. It combines innovative features of its predecessors, such as bridging great distances and reaching a mass audience. However, the Internet has novel features as well, most critically the relative anonymity afforded to users and the provision of group venues in which to meet others with similar interests and values. We place the Internet in its historical context, and then examine the effects of Internet use on the user’s psychological well-being, the formation and maintenance of personal relationships, group memberships and social identity, the workplace, and community involvement. The evidence suggests that while these effects are largely dependent on the particular goals that users bring to the interaction---such as self-expression, affiliation, or competition---they also interact in important ways with the unique qualities of the Internet communication situation. INTRODUCTION

It is interactive: Like the telephone and the telegraph (and unlike radio or television), people can overcome great distances to communicate with others almost instantaneously [AU: Annual Reviews style is to cap the first letter of a complete sentence following colon.]. It is a mass medium: Like radio and television (and unlike the telephone or telegraph), content and advertising can reach millions of people at the same time. It has been vilified as a powerful new tool for the devil, awash in pornography, causing users to be addicted to hours each day of “surfing”---hours during which they are away from their family and friends, resulting in


depression and loneliness for the individual user, and further weakening neighborhood and community ties. It has been hailed by two U.S. presidents as the ultimate weapon in the battle against totalitarianism and tyranny, and credited by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan with creating a “new economy.” It was denounced by the head of the Miss France committee as “an uncontrolled medium where rumormongers, pedophiles, prostitutes, and criminals could go about their business with impunity” after it facilitated the worldwide spread of rumors that the reigning Miss France was, in fact, a man (Reuters 2001). “I’m terrified by this type of media,” she said.

“It,” of course, is the Internet. Although some welcome it as a panacea while others fear it as a curse, all would agree that it is quite capable of transforming society. Hard-nosed and dispassionate observers have recently concluded that the Internet and its related technologies “...will change almost every aspect of our lives---private, social, cultural, economic and political…because [they] deal with the very essence of human society: communication between people. Earlier technologies, from printing to the telegraph…have wrought big changes over time. But the social changes over the coming decades are likely to be much more extensive, and to happen much faster, than any in the past, because the technologies driving them are continuing to develop at a breakneck pace. More importantly, they look as if together they will be as pervasive and ubiquitous as electricity.” (Manasian 2003, p. 4)

The Internet is fast becoming a natural, background part of everyday life. In 2002, more than 600 million people worldwide had access to it (Manasian 2003). Children now grow up with the Internet; they and future generations will take it for granted just as they now do television and the telephone (Turow & Kavenaugh 2003). In California, 13-year-olds use their home computer as essentially another telephone to chat and exchange “instant messages” with their school friends (Gross et al. 2002). Toronto suburbanites use it as another means of contacting friends and family, especially when distance makes in-person and telephone communication difficult (Hampton & Wellman 2001). And people routinely turn to the Internet to quickly find needed information, such as about health conditions and remedies, as well as weather forecasts, sports scores, and stock prices.

This is not to say that Internet technology has now penetrated the entire planet to a similar extent. For example, in 2001 only 1 in 250 people in Africa was an Internet user, compared with a world average of 1 in 35, and 1 in 3 for North America and Europe. But the trend is clearly for ever-greater availability: The coming wireless technology (see Geer 2000, p. 11) will enable people in developing countries, who lag behind the rest of the world in hardwired infrastructure, to leapfrog technological stages and so come on-line much sooner than they would otherwise


have been able to---much as eastern Europe in the 1990s, lacking extensive hardwire telephone infrastructure, leapfrogged directly to cell phones (Markoff 2002, Economist 2003a). The main reason people use the Internet is to communicate with other people over e-mail--and the principal reason why people send e-mail messages to others is to maintain interpersonal relationships (Hampton & Wellman 2001, Howard et al. 2001, McKenna & Bargh 2000, Stafford et al. 1999). As Kang (2000, p. 1150) put it, “the ‘killer application’ of the internet turns out to be other human beings.” But this was not so obvious to the early investors in the Internet---in the 1990s telecom companies invested (and lost) billions of dollars in interactive television and in delivering movies and video over the Internet. (Interestingly, the original supposed “killer app” of the telephone also was to broadcast content such as music, news, and stock prices---and its use in this manner persisted in Europe up to World War II.)

No one today disputes that the Internet is likely to have a significant impact on social life; but there remains substantial disagreement as to the nature and value of this impact. Several scholars have contended that Internet communication is an impoverished and sterile form of social exchange compared to traditional face-to-face interactions, and will therefore produce negative outcomes (loneliness and depression) for its users as well as weaken neighborhood and community ties. Media reporting of the effects of Internet use over the years has consistently emphasized this negative view (see McKenna & Bargh 2000) to the point that, as a result, a substantial minority of (mainly older) adults refuse to use the Internet at all (Hafner 2003). Others believe that the Internet affords a new and different avenue of social interaction that enables groups and relationships to form that otherwise would not be able to, thereby increasing and enhancing social connectivity. In this review, we examine the evidence bearing on these questions, both from contemporary research as well as the historical record. THE INTERNET IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The Internet is but the latest in a series of technological advances that have changed the world in fundamental ways. In order to gauge the coming impact of the Internet on everyday life, and to help separate reality from hyperbole in that regard, it is instructive to review how people initially reacted to and then made use of those earlier technological breakthroughs. First, each new technological advance in communications of the past 200 years---the telegraph, telephone, radio, motion pictures, television, and most recently the Internet---was met


with concerns about its potential to weaken community ties (Katz et al. 2001, p. 406). The telegraph Please leave telegraph italicized, by eliminating physical distance as an obstacle to communication between individuals, had a profound effect on life in the nineteenth century (Standage 1998). The world of 1830 was still very much the local one it had always been: No message could travel faster than a human being could travel (that is, by hand, horse, or ship).All this changed in two decades because of Samuel Morse’s telegraph. Suddenly, a message from London to New York could be sent and received in just minutes (Spar 2001, p. 60), and people could learn of events in distant parts of the world within hours or days instead of weeks or months. There was great enthusiasm: The connection of Europe and America in 1858 through the transatlantic cable was hailed as “the event of the century” and was met with incredible fanfare. Books proclaimed that soon the entire globe would be wired together and that this would create world peace. According to one newspaper editorial, “it is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth” (Standage 1998, pp. 82--83). At the same time, however, governments feared the potential of such immediate communication between individual citizens. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, for example, banned the telegraph as an “instrument of subversion” (Spar 2001, p. 31). Similar raptures and fears have often been expressed, in our time, about the Internet as well.

The closest parallel to today’s Internet users were the telegraph operators, an “on-line” community numbering in the thousands who spent their working lives communicating with each other over the wires but who rarely met face to face. They tended to use low-traffic periods to communicate with each other, sharing stories, news, and gossip. Many of these working relationships blossomed into romances and even marriages. For example, Thomas Edison, who began his career as a telegraph operator, proposed to his wife Mina over the telegraph (Standage 1998, pp. 129--142). And today, worldwide, people send each other more than a billion text messages each day from their mobile phones (Economist 2003b), in a form of communication conceptually indistinguishable from the old telegraph.

The telephone---invented accidentally by Alexander Graham Bell in the 1880s while he was working on a multichannel telegraph---transformed the telegraph into a point-to-point communication device anyone could use, not only a handful of trained operators working in code. The effect was to increase regular contact between family, friends, and business associates,


especially those who lived too far away to be visited easily in person, and this had the overall effect of strengthening local ties (Matei & Ball-Rokeach 2001). Nevertheless, concerns continued to be raised that the telephone would harm the family, hurt relationships, and isolate people---magazines of the time featured articles such as “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?” (Fischer 1992). The next breakthrough, radio, fared no differently. Like the wireless Internet emerging today, radio freed communication from the restriction of hard-wired connections, and was especially valuable where wires could not go, such as for ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communication. However, its broadcast capability of reaching many people at once---thousands, even millions--was a frightening prospect ...

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