Within ten minutes I can research essentialism on my iPhone, while listening to Kanye West’s “Monster,” stopping long enough to email a professor about the lecture I missed yesterday — naughty me. With the all-powerful internet, we can be ultra-productive, while enjoying some entertainment to boot — and there seems to be no limit to what we can do. But, while we all enjoy these conveniences, what do we do with the downsides? If the net is so empowering, can’t it also be a means for personal and collective behavioral decadence? Exploring both the perks and downsides of this amazing resource merits serious attention if we are to better understand our relationship and engagement with the world wide web.
Anonymity and Disinhibition
Anonymity is the eternal bane and boon for internet surfers. Given the internet’s impersonal, computer-mediated nature, there is “a certain amount of [it] built into the system,” as Dr. Susan Barnes, associate director of RIT’s Lab for Social Computing, points out. The disadvantage of anonymity has come to the fore in recent news stories on online bullying. Although the internet did not produce bullying or harassment, it has afforded the freedom for some to do so online with minor prospects for reproach and little, to no, oversight. It follows that, “[the internet] enables people to behave badly, and to not take responsibility for their actions because they’re hidden behind a computer screen,” as Barnes reports. The resultant online disinhibition — or the vulgar unrestraint people display in online conduct — feeds the misbehavior of online bullies and “trolls” on online discussion boards. According to RIT Psychology professor Dr. Nicholas DiFonzo, this lack of inhibition “makes people more likely to hurt others, but also makes them more likely to be honest if they’re trying to come up with a solution.”
Catalyst for Addiction
As with anything we humans touch, the potential for addiction to the internet — be it to online gaming, social media, chat rooms, shopping or pornography — is an ever-present threat. Addictions to the internet can develop over time and can result in devastating consequences. In fact, it’s happened at RIT: DiFonzo spoke of two honors students in his class who dropped his course and ultimately left RIT owing to their addiction to the online game “World of Warcraft.”
The allure of the internet’s busy, constantly active nature can also be a haven to some, more “socially reticent” individuals. “You realize there’s an audience there 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Barnes. “So people who don’t have a lot of friends in real life can get addicted to the fact that, all of a sudden, they now have all of these friends online.” Barnes references a working theory in the field of computer-mediated communication, which suggests that when some people become too accustomed to online socialization, they tend to prefer it to physical, face-to-face relationships.
The Eclipse of Physical Communication
A downside to rise of online communication is the decline of physical, face-to-face communication and the social skills required to engage in that interaction. Today, we can Skype with friends from just about anywhere, or comment and like posts they publish on Facebook and other sites. However, online communication, whether through Facebook or via email, “is a very narrow band of communication, as opposed to the richness of face-to-face, verbal-nonverbal [communication]” according to DiFonzo. Thus, the dynamic, tangible elements of an old-fashioned conversation are lost in our online spaces and pose a threat to our want, need and ability to communicate in our physical spaces effectively.
Democratization: Online Advocacy
With the internet being an “instant medium” with pervasive reach, the potential to galvanize people en masse is astounding. We’ve witnessed this with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the antecedent revolutions in the Arab Spring. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter were strategically employed by users as part of these movements to communicate, discuss and plan protests around their common interests.
In fact, in early November, Bank of America retreated from a proposed $5 monthly debit card fee in part because of an online petition started by a 22-year-old student, Molly Katchpole, on the petition site Change.org. More than 306,000 people who opposed the planned surcharge signed her petition — and it is unlikely that her initiative would have been as successful without the mass, almost instant distribution of her appeal via the web. The web definitely helps level an ostensibly uneven playing field.
Social Networking and Online Communities
Of course, the internet’s ability to bring us together is without match, and is probably its greatest strength. Just take a look at social media: Today, Facebook alone enjoys about 800 million users — and Twitter has about 200 million. On these sites people connect and share tons of information — Twitter records about 1.6 billion search queries a day.
The web also allows almost anyone to dive in and create sites and communities around their interests with little need for strong financial backing. Third year Information Technology major Samuel Sandoval, founder of DeafTechNews, seized this very opportunity. Inspired by popular tech news site CNET, Sandoval, a deaf student, moved to create a similar site geared toward the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community: “I didn’t see a lot of deaf people taking up the responsibility of making a website, so I thought that was a good inspiration for me,” he says.
While his site doesn’t hold a large audience yet, Sandoval has been sought out for tech advice and tips: “A lot of people have heard of my site … they heard about the new iPhone [and] they’ve approached me to explain to them how to use it.” Projects like Sandoval’s signify what makes the net so powerful, and he is quick to note it: “I’m able to have a broader audience through the internet, [and] really without [it], I wouldn’t have anything.”
Our personal relationships have benefitted from our engagement online as well — especially with those with who live further away. “The research shows that the internet allows people to maintain their already existing relationships,” says DiFonzo. Even for those who have not experienced this personally, the potential for reunions online is also greatly increased when more and more people join social networking sites like Facebook. In this sense, our personal relationships stand a better chance of lasting in spite of different life events and this benefit cannot be glossed over.
Ultimately, the internet ought not to strike us as intrinsically bad or innately good — it’s much more than that. It’s a medium with seemingly boundless possibilities and some serious drawbacks as well. However, it’s only as empowering or debilitating as we users make it. “It’s not that the medium is good or bad, it’s what people do with it,” says Barnes, “It’s really the intent — what is [your] intent for going on the internet?” Trying to pigeonhole the web, then, becomes an exercise in futility, because the jury is still out, and whatever the net is to eventually mean and become, is really left to us.