Not long ago, the Internet was decried by dissidents of the online revolution as a threat to society, sure to split families, fracture friendships and turn users into computer crazed geeks. That is not how things are unfolding, according to a new survey which has found that far from driving people apart, new tools for email, online phone calls, webcams and instant messaging are bringing them closer. The Pew Internet and American Life project research, one of the first studies to uncover such a trend, finds people are increasingly turning to the net for help at a crisis point in life, or to seek a new job or home. There has been a growing realisation the Internet is not this strange beast,” sociologist Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto in Canada, who helped prepare the report, said.
The report, ‘The Strength of Internet Ties’, finds that rather than supplanting contact with others, the Internet, largely through email, fits into people’s lives and makes it easier to stay in touch. “The larger, the more far-flung, and the more diverse a person’s network, the more important email is,” said Jeffrey Boase, another University of Toronto researcher who co-authored the report. You can’t make phone calls or personal visits to all your friends very often, but you can ‘cc’ them regularly with a couple of keystrokes – that turns out to be very important. ” The Pew report finds that people “mobilise” their social networks when they face problems or important decisions. “When you need help these days, you don’t need a bugle to call the cavalry, you need a big buddy list,” said John Horrigan, Associate Director for Research at the Pew Internet Project.
Mr Wellman argues the Internet and the mobile phone have transformed communications and led to what he calls “networked individualism” whereby people’s social lives are not necessarily constrained by where they live. “This creates a new basis for community – rather than relying on a single community for social support, individuals often must actively seek out a variety of appropriate people and resources for different situations,” Mr Wellman said.
The report cites Pew research that shows that 45 per cent of Internet users – about 60 million Americans – say the web has been an important or critical factor in a major decision in the last two years. The research found people had used the web to get career training, research an illness from which a friend or relative was suffering, choose a school for their child or buy a car. Some 16 million people said the web had played a crucial or important role in making a major financial decision, while 10 million said the Internet had played a crucial or important role in finding a new place to live.