Unsurprisingly, Geeks Endorse the Web as Social Tool

A new unscientific survey of nearly 900 top technology influencers has found, perhaps not surprisingly, that most believe the Web has been a positive step for social interactivity. Still, many don’t.

But the Web-based Future of the Internet study, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet American Life Project and the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University, also found that many are wary of the distractions a connected lifestyle generates, and those effects on personal interactions.

The study is the fifth of six surveys sent to respondents, some of which Pew hand-picked. The survey is not designed to be representative of the general public, but instead simply reflect the opinions of those Pew has determined to be some of the Web’s cognoscenti, including Esther Dyson, Doc Searls, Nicholas Carr, andCraig Newmark, among others.

In fact, users were asked to respond to just one statement, making a single choice: “In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive/negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.”

Pew said that of the 895 respondents, 85 percent agreed with the positive statement, and 14 percent with the negative.

Because of the varied nature of responses, Pew grouped them into major themes. The first and apparently most popular reaction was similar to this:

“The internet has been embraced globally at an amazing speed because of its capabilities for communication and connection – for creating, cultivating, and continuing social relationships,” the report said. “One big advantage is that email, social networking tools and other apps allow people to maintain bigger social networks and allow people to learn more about those in their networks. Richer social relations emerge from this greater awareness. Another advantage that it is much easier now to build communities on the fly via personal broadcasts. All these trends will continue to hold strong over the next decade.”

Typical responses included this one from author lecturer Eric James: “The enemies of social connectivity are silence, disengagement, distance, and abandonment,” James wrote. “In the past, how many individuals and families have suffered from these degenerative influences? Now we have the internet. High school sweethearts are reunited. Strangers meet and form personal unions. Families are brought together. Adoptees find reunion, too. Interest groups thrive. Businesses leap borders. Genealogies are learned, and one person in his lifetime can place himself into history, and comprehend his place in the span of time. On the internet, social alienation remains a factual force. But never before has a person had more opportunity for social integration. More than ever, being inside or outside now is a matter of personal choice.”

Amy Gahran, a contributing writer at eMeter and co-creator and community manager at the Reynolds Journalism Institute also said that the Web had contributed to her social life. “It’s now easy for me to find people who share characteristics or interests, whereas for much of my pre-internet life I mainly felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere,” Gahran said. “Also, it’s made it easier for me to find and interact with many types of people who are very different from me, giving me a wider range of experience. The classic example of how the net has positively affected my personal life is Meetup.com. I’ve gone to many real-world get- togethers coordinated through that service, and have made many friends that way. That, to me, blends the best of the net and the real world.”

On the other hand, the respondents said, several expressed concern that the Internet can be distracting, “that people’s use of the internet for social connection does not often foster deep relationships of value, and it can be detrimental”.

“Social networking encourages people to have a greater number of much shallower friendships,” wrote Gervase Markham, a programmer for the Mozilla Foundation. “Insofar as online interaction replaces real-world interaction, the internet is a negative force in the social world. I know what 15 of my friends had for breakfast, but I don’t know whether any of them is struggling with major life issues. If this trend continues, people in 2020 will have hundreds of acquaintances but very few friends. However, acquaintancebook.com doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.”

And some, of course, took the middle ground. “I could answer either way. I have an expanded circle of social connections, and stay in touch more,” said Dave McAllister, director, open source and standards (OSS), standards, Adobe Systems, and owner of OSB Technologies. “However, I also have less deep connections. It is interesting the number of developing adults that function well in a keyboard setting while failing at human interaction (e.g. can message and chat effectively, can’t call on a phone or converse in person).”

The survey was conducted between Dec. 2, 2009 and Jan. 11, 2010, Pew said.

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