Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The World Wide Web

social-networking

(Photo: SoleilC/Shutterstock)

Don’t Fear the Network: The Internet Is Changing the Way We Communicate for the Better

• June 02, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: SoleilC/Shutterstock)

Panic about the rise of social media is largely overhyped and misplaced.

True leaders gone, of land and people.
We choose no kin but adopted strangers.
The family weakens by the length we travel.

—Jane’s Addiction, “Three Days,” 1990

It seems pretty obvious to most observers that our social networks have changed in the past few decades thanks to technology. The widespread use of cell phones, the increasing affordability of air travel, the rise of the Internet, and the advent of social media have changed the way we work, the way we live, and the way we make and maintain friendships.

For some, this is cause for concern. We are, perhaps, too wired—more attuned to events and friends thousands of miles away than to what’s going on right in front of our faces, more likely to share cat videos over smartphones than to play catch in our backyards. Perhaps these technological changes are compelling us to withdraw from the physical world, promoting antisocial behavior and undermining our true relationships.

Last week, I attended a lecture on this topic by Barry Wellman at the Political Networks Conference in Montreal. Wellman is a sociologist and the director of NetLab at the University of Toronto, and has been studying the role of social networks and technology for decades.

We no longer require homes, offices, or cafes to stay in touch with people; we can do it wherever we happen to be.

As Wellman argued, panic about the rise of social media is largely overhyped and misplaced. Technology hasn’t undermined our social relationships, although it has certainly affected them.

Wellman’s research has shown that the use of social media has augmented, rather than undermined, our personal relationships: “Online communication – email, instant messaging, chat rooms, etc. – does not replace more traditional offline forms of contact – face-to-face and telephone. Instead, it adds on to them, increasing the overall volume of contact.” More specifically, people with a great deal of on-line conversations have just as many off-line conversations as those who decline to participate in the former. The Internet just increases the overall frequency of communication.

What’s more, the on-line world is not truly distinct from the off-line one. We use the Internet and social media largely to stay in touch and make plans with people we already know from face-to-face relationships. Email and social media communications aren’t better or worse than in-person ones; they’re just different. And they complement each other.

To be sure, our increasing on-line connectedness has changed our perceptions of our social world. Decades ago, our social networks were decidedly local; we primarily spoke with our neighbors and nearby friends and family members. More recently, we have become, in Wellman’s words, “glocalized,” simultaneously involved in both local and long-distance relationships. This was certainly enabled by long-distance phone service, which largely put one household in touch with another.

More recently, though, the rise of personal cell phones and social media have allowed us to stay in touch with other individuals regardless of location. This, according to Wellman, is “networked individualism.” We no longer require homes, offices, or cafes to stay in touch with people; we can do it wherever we happen to be.

Douglas Adams succinctly summed up attitudes toward new technologies when he wrote:

There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

In fact, as Wellman argues, there’s little to be afraid of, even for those of us over 35. The on-line world isn’t supplanting the off-line one; it’s enhancing it. We no longer need to lose touch with neighbors who move away or with school friends who graduate; we can keep friends for life and still make new ones.

Oh, and where are we finding the time to keep in touch with all these people? As Wellman writes:

Time spent on the Internet usually supplants time spent watching television rather than time spent on other forms of social life.

More friendships and less TV? Heaven forfend.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.


December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?


December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.


December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.


Follow us


Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.