Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#75, February 22, 2000


by Marylaine Block

They're at it again; yet another research study has been done to show that internet users are sick, weird, twisted people without a social life.

When the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society asked 4,113 American adult internet users questions about social isolation, one of the researchers, Professor Norman Nie, was alarmed by "the sheer number of hours that people spend by themselves" (I wonder if he's equally alarmed about people who sit alone reading books, or doing quantitative studies of society). He's afraid the internet could be "the ultimate isolating technology that further reduces our participation in communities even more than television." What are the statistics that alarm him so?

Of course that means that 87 percent of internet users are NOT spending less time with friends and family, and 92 percent were getting out and about as much as ever.

As for the 26 percent spending less time on the phone with friends and family, I suspect they've simply changed the way they chat with each other because e-mail is cheaper than long-distance. 84 percent of people online send and receive e-mail regularly, which sure doesn't sound like social isolation to me.

True, the time we spend online is time we're not spending on things we used to do. If we're not stiffing our nearest and dearest, what ARE we doing less of? One third of the respondents were spending less time reading newspapers, and three fifths were watching less television. Um, are we supposed to be bothered by that, too?

And before we worry about the 13 percent who DO spend less time with their families and friends, perhaps we need some more information about how good those relationships were in the first place. The divorce rate suggests that not all families are happy places to be, and all those chat rooms for abused children or children of alcoholics suggest that many troubled lonely kids have found on the internet a substitute family that can provide comfort and understanding.

Not only do we not get to select our families, even our choice of face-to-face friends is restricted to people who live near at hand. If we live in a small farming community, our friends will be 4-H members, whether or not we are actually interested in 4-H. Like the leprechaun in Finian's Rainbow, when we're not near the girl we love, we must settle for loving the girls we're near. While these relationships work well enough for most purposes, large parts of ourselves remain unshared and unbefriended because the people around us think our passion for chess or classical music or word games is weird.

I see the internet as an unparalleled opportunity to bring people together. We join discussion groups to talk to people who care as much as we do about new techniques in heart surgery or animation graphics, or new patterns for quilts or origami. We create web sites to put our art work or writing online where they may find an appreciative audience. We create games and software and hope somebody comes along to download them, test them out, maybe even suggest new characters or rules or functionalities. We take our political organizations and charities online to raise converts and money. A web site is our ultimate way of saying to the universe, "I'm here. Does anybody care?" Often, people DO care, and write to us. Sometimes they become dear friends and collaborators.

If anything, I suspect we communicate MORE because of the internet. Online writers get far more feedback than writers in traditional print media. That's partly because it's easier to click on the e-mail button on our page than it is to write letters, and partly because the medium is inherently less formal and more interactive -- an article or column seems less like a lecture and more like the beginning of a conversation.

The net makes it easy for us to speak back to power, whether it's in the form of reporters, politicians, pundits, or researchers doing quantitative studies of society.

Hmmm. Now maybe THAT's why the internet worries people so much.

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