Saturday, November 03, 2007

Why I'm skeptical that the Internet provides community.

Okay, so getting back to the question of whether or not the Internet provides community, let me remind everyone that I had said that it does not:
The Internet provides an illusion of community, but it's nothing compared with face-to-face conversation. Ultimately, it's a crutch, "communication" with a screen instead of a person. It prevents us from tracking each other down in the real world. It give us "virtual" connections and numbs us to our literal alienation. It's interactive television. And I think the case could be made that it has supplemented real world socializing a lot more than we'd like to admit.
Admittedly, there is a perverse sort of thrill here in sawing off the branch that I'm sitting on. And I definitely worded that in a fairly provocative way. Holly responded, politely disagreeing with me, also in a thought-provoking way:
That has not been my experience, and it has not been the experience of many people I know. I could give loads of examples, but tedious. Suffice it to say I've had more meals and interesting conversations *in person* with people I met initially on the Internet, than I have had with people I met initially in the real world.
Obviously, I can't disagree with this very much; after all, I met Claire on a yahoo group. And, indeed, I would say that the Internet can improve one's chances of meeting people with similar interests. In fact, I think that's the first argument for Internet community, followed by the fact that it can be a lifeline for people in very isolated places, and it can build stronger and wider-reaching communities around common interests than might be possible otherwise. In this article for Inside Higher Ed, in which Scott Eric Kaufman praises academic blogging, he adds another point- it teaches us how to write for a large public.

All of these points are strong, and to a certain extent, I agree with all of them. But, I'd say that I'm in about 40% agreement with any one of them. So, let's take them in turn.

1. The Internet improves one's chances of meeting people with similar interests.
Yes, but so what? As much as I desperately want to meet more people with at least somewhat similar interests to my own, the Internet tends to connect me to people with too similar interests- it narrowcasts. So it's great if I want to meet other Cramps fans, but not so much if I want what I get in real-life communities, which are much more challenging and rewarding interactions. The other day, I was bullshitting with the other PhD students on campus, and I stated an opinion of mine about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Turns out I was wrong, or at least partially wrong, as a student who lived in New Orleans explained, calling me on my bullshit. It was good. My understanding broadened. I think there's a danger in creating a like-minded echo-chamber. That said, I love the horror-geek discussions on the Rue Mortuary message board!

Of course, I should also add that I've never actually met 95% of the people that I know online, and I think that's fairly common. If you have, that's great. In fact, that should be the ideal.

2. The Internet is a lifeline for people in very isolated places.
I'm sure it's critical in fact for say, gay teens in the Bible belt. I don't deny this. But I also see Internet-addicts in the cities, actually plenty of them. And I'm not sure that it doesn't remove people's need to get out of their isolating situations. So many of us today feel like internal exiles- we're atomized and alienated in our own towns and country. I think we should rightfully rage against that, not medicate it. I think we should seek common ground, and not live like little Marie Antoinettes in cyber-bubbles of our like-minded supporters. I think we should fight the loneliness that is the human condition.

3. The Internet can assemble stronger and wider-reaching groups.
Absolutely true. But, it has to be a first step, not a final destination. Too many groups end on the Internet. Even worse, I've seen social groups that wound up on the Internet. In the past decade, I've noticed increased difficulty in getting people to come out for pot-lucks, reading groups, poetry readings, and get-togethers, and I've heard the same from quite a few people. Human beings are naturally rather lazy. Getting together on the Internet is perfect for those of us who don't feel like hauling our tired asses to each other's homes. I don't deny that there are people like yourself who meet up with Internet friends; but they aren't the majority.

4. The Internet teaches us how to write for a large public.
I think this gets at what the Net is. It's not socializing; it's broadcasting. And I think it gets at the worst aspect of Internet communities for me- they allow us to keep each other at an arm's length. We don't have to respond until we feel like it, or at all. We don't have to face each other if we're being cruel. In fact, we have none of the responsibilities that are imposed upon us by the face of the other in their unique humanity. One of the academic blogging advocates writes:
I would add that in my community college English department a group of us have managed to become closer and more intellectually engaged with each other through blogging.
When I read that, all I could think of was a married couple pushing notes under the door to each other.

We've talked here before about people watching the world instead of taking part in it, and I think that's part of what bothers me about Internet communities- they're like a real-world communities, but without all of the randomness, risks, dangers, emotional entanglements, and unexpected connections that take place in the real world. Like cybersex, it's a decent substitute for the real thing, but nobody in their right mind would choose it over the real thing.

Another Sky.


Hiromi said...

Rufus, I'm slightly puzzled as to why you feel so strongly about this. I totally agree that online interaction is no substitute for real-life interaction, but I guess you feel that many people *do* use it as a substitute, and this is eroding our societal quality of life?

Have you ever read "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam? the book was made famous when Bill Clinton said he'd read it. Personally, I'm not crazy about the book or Putnam's overall political point of view, and am not sure whether you'd like it or not, but I wonder whether there is overlap in what he said and what you're saying.

Rufus said...

It's not strong feelings- it's more like a fascination. I like to poke and prod and push arguments as far as I can to see what happens. Also, I've seen very little on the topic. And something also fascinates me about the fact that nearly everyone I meet disagrees with me on this- that's the perverse nature of academics I think.

I'd say it was around the mid-90s that I started noticing that the social groups, activist groups, art gatherings, and so forth that I routinely hopped between were starting to move online. Theatre troupes I knew were starting to shoot things for youtube instead of mounting plays, bands were starting to prefer online collaboration. Most startling to me were those kids I met at college who would run home to post on facebook nearly every night instead of, well, hanging out and getting drunk.

Socializing fills needs that are, for many people, much more easily met online. As those needs are met, there is less incentive to socialize. Again, most of us are shy and a bit lazy.

But, yes, I've noticed something- and I can't exactly say what it is- in the last decade or so. A gradual substitution of public interaction with online interaction. Actually, a number of people have made similar observations to me. None of them want to go so far as to say that the Internet is eroding the social quality of life. I suppose I'm averse to say that as well. Lots of technologies are isolating and prevent interaction, especially communication technologies.

However, I think most people will agree that other technologies, such as television, ultimately had averse consequences for things like social interaction, civic engagement, and literacy- and interestingly, most people thought Marshall McLuhan was nuts when he suggested that this would happen way back in the late 50s.

So I like to probe this argument. I'd say that it's important to remember that I'm both joking and serious. Always.

Holly said...

So, you want it both ways? The internet is a critical venue of interaction for some people, and also it's an interference layer preventing interaction for some people? Sure. I'll give you those simultaneous and conflicting notions. I'll go one more, it's those things--both at the same time--for some people.

This is true of almost any technology I can think of, though. Telephones destroyed family life, but also keep us in touch. Television ruined public gatherings, but also keep us informed. Cars ruined the long-term stability of local communities, but also allow us to have larger territories. Airplanes, same as cars, on a different scale. Even medical technology has this quality--sure, it saves a lot of lives, but also it has detached us from the basic understanding of things like pain and death.

... and so on. Presumably the net benefit outweighs the net detriment, in all cases. The internet is a young technology, which we have not yet fully integrated and owned, culturally and socially.

You don't have to *like* it, or even see it as a boon, but it's not going away. We're talking about a development of equal or greater magnitude to the telephone, in terms of social impact. I'm going to estimate it's actually more on par with the proliferation of time-telling devices and standardized timekeeping (time zones, etc), as far as what it means to people to interrelate with others, strangers and those known to us, both.

In the case of all those technologies that have come before, yes, they damaged some aspects of the way communities were constructed before the technology came along... but ultimately, they were key in building a new type of community. "New" and "good" are only synonymous in an industrial revolution mentality, but I'm not totally sure we're over that, anyway. Maybe CDs killed cassettes, but they haven't killed vinyl. Television may have killed radio plays, but it didn't kill live music performance.

Besides, there is one thing that I see as an undeniable pro in the pros and cons of internet as a venue for community: It exists. Connections people make on the internet, no matter how they are executed & experienced, happended. That happened 100% more than they would have, had the internet never been developed. It's easy to say that people are substituting internet interactions for "real life" interactions, but that actually validates it, as a venue. People are lazy, and social. So if they find that socializing on the internet is "better," that almost certainly means that it is easier, and fulfills some part of their need for socialization. (Even if it does not do that for you.)

Availability is key, and my observation about American culture is that it is *extremely* isolationist on an individual level. The predominance of suburban lifestyles, where everyone crouches in their single-family box, not knowing their neighbors, drives to wherever they work, not knowing their co-workers, shops at a store where they don't know the employees, and then drives homes again... that was already in place before the internet came around. At least now, while they're at home crouching in the box, they're communicating with other box crouchers, and not just watching Friends. They can talk about their shitty sit-coms.

The very soul of community, don't you think?

Rufus said...

Sure, I want it multiple ways. That's the point- technologies have numerous effects on us. They have pros and cons.

But, I think you want to celebrate the pros and accept the cons. I get this a lot- the argument that new technologies are either a boon or inevitable. So, if we say that the Internet has provided a lifeline for isolated people, or that it's been great for small businesses, these are boons. If we say that it's reduced literacy rates or taught people to read only in small bite form or sharply reinforced social isolation... well, there's nothing you can do about the Internet. It's here to stay after all. You can't roll back the tide.

Of course it's not going away. But, it's completely bizarre to say that we have this technology that is probably the biggest thing to happen in our lifetimes and we should accept the inevitability of whatever comes with it.

As for those other technologies, I don't buy the argument that their pros presumably outweigh their cons since so many people have bought them. A society that is trained to constantly shop will buy anything that's new, and as unreflectively as they in fact do. I'd disagree that the benefits of television have outweighed the drawbacks. In fact, I'd say television has had the cultural effect of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima. And the chance that a few people in public emergencies might be able to call 911 hardly makes up for having public civility wiped out by cell phones.

And, yes, the Internet makes a lot of things much easier and more convenient. But where would civilization be today if we had never had to try or suffer or make an effort? If everything was 'at the touch of our fingertips'? And why do so many arguments for the net mirror those made for late capitalism?

When you complain about new technologies, you're largely treated like a flat-earther- sort of quaint and irrational. But, as you've implied, all technologies are hostile to what came before them. So the Internet probably won't wipe out television. But, having seen a wave of kids from the Internet generation who disdain literature and poetry for not getting their points across in a paragraph or less, it's hard for me to believe that we library dwellers should be cheerleaders for the net. And we are, for the most part.

As for the isolationist nature of American society, it's been in place before the Internet. But, it wasn't always thus. My Grandfather grew up in a much different America. Of course, he grew up before television. And, since it wasn't always that way, it doesn't need to always be that way. It's also not inevitable.

Holly said...

Would I be way out of line if I were to suppose that what you're looking for here is an argument? I mean, just fundamentally, what you want to fight with someone about this?

If I were to say, yes, you're right on all counts, all other views are wrong, short sighted, self-serving, intellectually weak, socially undermining, and generally pathetic, I agree with your point of view... that'd be really irritating, wouldn't it? Because what you're after is a contrarian position. It's not that you want to be recognized as right, it's that you want to be on the lonely high ground.

I'm pretty sure television did a lot more to damage literacy than the internet has, being as the internet is full of words and the television is full of pictures, but I wouldn't make a speech about that without doing some work to quantify it better.

Sure, it's irritating as piss when people are plugged in while I want them to be focused on me, and my immediate presence. Sure, it's irritating as piss when people are ignorant of all manner of basic aspects of their own lives. Sure, it's irritating as piss when people choose to cocoon themselves and then go on to get angry about how their cocoon is being violated by the imperatives of life.

But, hey, guess what? If it weren't that, it'd be something else. The people who are going to be irritated are going to find something to be irritated about. The people who are going to be happy with whatever is going on around them are going to choose that, pretty much no matter what is going on around them.

You're making some assumptions about my attitudes, and then you're responding to those assumptions. Since some of your assumptions are wrong, that means, from my point of view, that I'm more or less out of this conversation. There is certainly no point in my trying to correct your misconceptions, because the misconceptions support your angle, and the corrections wouldn't.

Further, since we're having the discussion on the internet, and since you have a fairly rigid concept of the breadth, depth, meaning, or lack of meaning, that internet conversations can have, up to and including the positions and opinions that are or can be held by others... it's almost moot what I (or anyone else) thinks or says. Thus, you have very skillfully crafted the broadcast-only internet of your fantasies. Congratulations, you win! You now inhabit an internet of one! Is it very lonely there?

gregvw said...

There is no Brahma without Shiva.

Rufus said...

Your response is not out of line, but I think it's a bit disproportionate. I'm not looking for a fight, or to assume the high ground, or to be agreed or disagreed with. In fact, until this response, I honestly thought we were having a fairly pleasant discussion.

So, I went for a walk to think about how I came off as contrarian, or combative, or whatever. And it seems to me that I was most wrong in misrepresenting your opinions. If you were saying one thing and I misunderstood that and went off on a whole other tangent that misrepresented your thoughts completely, I am sorry. I can see how that can be annoying and alienating.

But, if I misrepresented your ideas, you certainly misrepresented my motivations. It will suffice to say that the answer to every question you posed about what I am looking for here is No.

Looking at what I wrote, I can see where it's infuriating provided that I totally missed your point. But, there's a difference between me being mistaken and me just looking for a fight. And, I really do think it should be clear that my own positions are nowhere near as rigid as you say they are. And, while I do have my own particular psychodramas and fantasies, they're not the ones you assigned to me here.

But, whatever. I assume that we probably agree more than we disagree and are just having communication problems. Is it unfair to point out that these problems are a lot more easily solved in real-life discussions?

clairev said...

Then which of us is Vishnu??


gregvw said...

Is it unfair to point out that these problems are a lot more easily solved in real-life discussions?

I don't know. How many times has an argument descended into physical violence on the internet?

Holly said...

Rufus, we're probably just having two totally independent conversations that happen to use a lot of the same words. These do not, in my experience, get resolved any easier in person, but that's my life. Yours has obviously gone differently.

Please accept my apology on the account of any defamation of character delivered recently. I was exasperated and therefore deliberately harsh. While I didn't say anything I can't support with reasonable discussion, I chose another route, which isn't necessarily appropriate for this venue.

Claire, I don't know, but I want to be Ganesha next time!

Rufus said...

I don't know if things get resolved easier in the real world, although Greg I would also point out that 'make up sex' isn't possible online either. Not saying it's appropriate here! But, you know.

Anyway, I think it's just easier for me to get my tone across in person. I was certainly not feeling combative or trying to sound that way. Sometimes I think that a good part of communication is tone of voice and body language. Maybe I should use more emoticons. But, anyway, no harm, no foul.

I should make it clear though that the Internet hasn't raped my mother nor killed my father.

Lisa said...

This may be tangential to your initial point, as you seem to be talking mainly about fora and blogs, but there is evidence that some forms of internet use have replaced, not dinner with the family, but hours in front of the TV. The example I've seen actual data for is massively multiplayer games (The Daedalus Project,, and it appears that total TV+gaming hours are about the same as the average American's TV hours. So in this case, a solitary pursuit is replaced with a cooperative pursuit, often leading to real friends and lasting relationships. So even if it's not the same sense of community as a knitting circle, that's not what it's replacing.

Rufus said...

Thanks- that's a fascinating study. It definitely sounds like a better use of time than TV watching. To be honest, my own gaming began and ended with Pac Man, so I know almost nothing about this. How do people go from games to relationships? Do they say, 'That was fun. Let's go get a beer'?

I also found it interesting that women were more likely to form support networks through MMOs. I wonder why that is.

Lisa said...

Haven't been by in a while so I know this is a bit belated, but just wanted to offer a response to your questions - starting with the question about gender differences, it seems like to some degree men and women want different things out of games (for whatever reason, not going to speak to nature/nurture). I know in my case, most of the appeal of MMOs comes from the other people, but my male friends who play are much more into the achievement side of things - levelling as quickly as possible, etc.

Relationships start when people group together or join the same guild, and discover that they enjoy each other's company or enjoy working together towards a common goal. Later, they can start having discussions on guild forums or through e-mail, perhaps at first about the game and then later about themselves. Also, sometimes a tightly-knit guild will have a get-together, say some member or members inviting the others over for a drink or a barbecue. Everyone has their own story, but those are some of the patterns I've noticed.

Anonymous said...

What do you think about WIKILEAKS?
Hope for no silence