The influence of the Internet has caused a change in the way we communicate, learn and shop. The Internet is probably most famous for the ability to spread information, fact or fiction. We were once limited to news editors of a local paper, then to national cable news. Now anyone can search the globe, visit local papers in foreign countries, and see the views of all sides. This ease of information has also brought with it a large amount of hoaxes, money schemes, and fallacies. There is no question that easy access to the Internet, like the introduction of mail service and the invention of the telephone, has changed the nature of people’s connection to others in their social world. Mail made possible connections among people without physical proximity, and the telephone facilitated communication among distant people, making rapid connections possible across long distances.
But has this communication revolution changed the pure nature of interpersonal and group processes? On the one hand, since the primary use of the Internet is communication, some people might speculate that the Internet will have positive social consequences in people’s everyday lives because it increases the frequency and quality of interpersonal communications among people. People with easy access to others would feel better connected and more strongly supported by others, leading to happiness and engagement in families, organizations, communities, and society more generally. But, on the other hand, the ease of electronic communication may lead to weaker social ties, because people have less reason to leave their homes and actually interact face to face with other people. The Internet allows people to more easily work from their home, to form and sustain friendships and even romantic attachments from their home to bank from their home, to vote, and engage in political and social issue-based discussions with others (from home).
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In this variety of ways, Internet communications can potentially displace face-to-face communications. I think this point is important because psychologists in many types of research have described and proved such face-to-face and telephone connections as being of higher quality when viewed in terms of their contribution to satisfaction and well-being. Reading a series of longitudinal and experimental studies (e.x. McKenna, Green, and Gleason), who test a theory of relationship formation on the Internet, these researchers directly address the argument that the psychological quality of Internet social interaction is lower than is the psychological quality of traditional face-to-face interaction. Consider my own use. I’ve received several e-mail messages in the past hour. My boyfriend confirms the dinner for tonight. Even though it is the weekend, my colleagues send me questions about the pending exam expect a quick answer. So does some graduate student from Europe, that I recently met on “MySpace” with an urgent request for a letter of recommendation.
My friend Ksenija sends me an IM to tell me the latest news about her new love. And so on and so on… I assume that I am also living a virtual life, and what’s the most interesting of all, all of my friends online, are also my friends in real life. And if they weren’t that in the past, I somehow managed to bring my cyber friends into my real life, so I could hear in my real life enable real communication, real face-to-face “talks”, real exchange of emotions, feelings of happiness, satisfaction and well-being. I’d say for me, the Internet is a great new way of doing old things. So, what else conclusion can I bring except the one that Internet life cannot stand on itself without real-life communication? It is simple: If we understand the qualities of face-to-face communication that influence the impact of such communication on people and their social interaction, we would be able to predict the probable influence of any new communication technology.
However, researchers show that people sooner or later convert their cyber contacts into more traditional face-to-face, the same as I do. People use the Internet, in other words, to help them achieve their real-life goals. And rather than technology’s changing people’s social and psychological reality, in other words, people change their use of technology to facilitate their creation of a desired social reality. Internet users should closely examine their behavior, to ensure that excessive time online will not negatively impact their personal well-being. We shouldn’t throw our computers out the window, but neither should we charge blindly into complete dependence on the Internet. As with many things in life, it seems that moderation and balance are key to maximizing the Internet’s positive effect.
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