This week's headlines about HomeNet, the new study of online life by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, confirmed every netizen's worst fears -- at least their fears of more hyperbolic headlines about the Net.
"Researchers Find Sad, Lonely World in Cyberspace," gravely intoned The New York Times, while The Washington Post chimed in with "Internet Causes Depression."
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The conclusions in the report itself -- financed at a cost of US$1.5 million by such generally tech-positive companies as Intel, Apple Computer, and Hewlett-Packard -- seemed to justify the media's cautionary spin: "Greater use of the Internet was associated with statistically significant declines in social involvement as measured by communication within the family and the size of people's local social networks and with increases in loneliness.... Greater use of the Internet is associated with a decline in size of the social circle, declines in social contact, and declines in family communication. Greater use of the Internet also was associated with increases in depression."
For the last 13 years, a less strictly controlled experiment in the social effects of daily online life has been unfolding on The Well, an infamously feisty, fiercely loyal, and perspicacious Net community based in Northern California. The HomeNet survey has inspired its own topic in The Well's Virtual Community conference: "Does Net-use really bum us out?" Watching over the hundreds of active discussions is executive director Gail Williams, who first came to The Well in 1990, bringing experience in organizing antinuclear affinity groups and political theater.
As the host-of-all-hosts for one of the few online communities that isn't an oxymoron, Williams is the keeper of as much anecdotal evidence about the long-term social effects of Net use as anyone in the trenches of cyberspace. Wired News spoke with Williams about the implications of the HomeNet study and the patterns of online engagement in an enduring community.
Wired News: The psychologist James Hillman and writer Michael Ventura wrote a book called We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy, and the World is Getting Worse. We've had five years of the Web, over a dozen years of The Well, and there are 12 million users on America Online. Is the world getting better or worse?
Gail Williams: Most of the ways that the world is getting worse had a lot of momentum: The state of the biosphere, the livability of our planet, and the economic and military accommodations that we've reached with other countries and other cultures. I'd be surprised if technology could offer a utopian solution for them.
Early on, many people did believe that the Net would instantaneously change human society. If you take a step back, you can say that the telephone changed human society quite a lot, and in the study, there's a reference to how reaching for the telephone is a "more involving real-world" connection between a mother and a daughter than email. We've incorporated the phone as an extension of our social selves after a century, but no one's said that it's created world peace or a sustainable planet. When I looked at the study, I really wanted to know if people who weren't on the Net or didn't have computers were also more depressed after the last couple of years.
WN: So many people are getting online now, and experiencing the same initial euphoria and disillusionment that people have been cycling through on The Well for years. Have you noticed patterns of usage evolving among people who spend a lot of time on The Well?
Williams: After someone's been around for about two years, people either figure out that they've made some kind of a network of people that makes sense to them -- whether they were looking for emotional support, sources of information, playmates for banter and games -- or they figure out that this isn't working, for whatever reason, and tend to drop off.
At two years, we either get people who are getting a lot more invested, or they drop out. I was interested to note that the study looked at these people for two years, because at The Well, two years is the point when you really would say, "Is this worth it? I've put a lot of time into making connections with strangers. I'm just starting to get to know them. Am I going to continue with this, or do I want to use this medium much more lightly?"
WN: What causes people to drop out?
Williams: Once at a party, I mentioned that I worked at The Well, and this woman who had just introduced herself said, "Oh, I used to have a Well account." She said it in this strange way. So I said, "Did you drop out or did you graduate?" And she said, "I graduated. I'm writing a book now, and I started a garden. I spent a lot of time online, but I realized that time is a limited commodity. It's not recyclable." Anyone who gets online eventually has to ask themselves if it's enriching their lives or taking away from other things, particularly if what you want is a network of people. That takes a lot of work, and it may not be how you want to spend your time.
The study distinguished between "weak ties" and "strong ties" and said that people should be encouraged to focus on their strong ties for online communication -- email to your brothers and sisters and so forth -- implying that communicating with strangers is not a good thing. I was struck by that, because I think for a lot of people, starting to build ties online is a little bit like moving from a rural small town into a city. It has some of the attraction of urban life.
A lot of us like to talk to strangers sometimes, randomly bounce things off of people without knowing where they're coming from. It gives you a certain kind of feedback that you don't get from people who have known you for years. Perhaps one of the things that that offers you is that it allows you to change, in a social sense. On the other hand, if you go for years, and a lot of your ties are shallow, and you haven't developed any continuity -- any sense that people are deepening their knowledge of who you are -- then you might really want to turn elsewhere.
If someone's out of work or sick, they might be online more than usual, for hours a day. We very occasionally get a phone call from someone saying, "Could you please change my password to something I don't know for two weeks?" Which we're willing to do [laughing].
WN: What questions do you have about the study's methods?
Williams: The first set of questions have to do with the sample. What about control groups? Why weren't these people compared with those who didn't have a computer at all? What about those who spend a lot of time on a computer, but don't use the Net? The sample wasn't random either -- it was groups of people who already had certain kinds of existing strong social networks [such as their families]. It might be expected that if you start looking for new ways to network and new people, and you try to figure out a new vocabulary of relationship, that you might go through a period of adjustment where you were feeling alienated.
Some of the conclusions are a little strange. They say, "Because online friends are not embedded in the same day-to-day environment, they will be less likely to understand the context for conversation, making discussion more difficult and rendering support less applicable." Well, on The Well, and I'm sure in many other places online, there is a context, and a day-to-day environment, and people do understand that if someone's been cranky lately, that comment they just made is probably sarcastic, and all those other little things that help you flesh out an online conversation. [The researchers] seem to like buddy lists, and search engines that help you find people, but these subtle social dynamics are not addressed by having software that gives you a buddy list. They're addressed by understanding that community means continuity with people over time.
It might be important that they were looking at teenagers who had been in a close group together, and who were going away to college, as a large part of their sample. One person on The Well suggested that another headline that could have been drawn from this study was, "Teenagers Are Lonely, Spend More Time Online Than Parents." But that wouldn't have had any sensationalistic value. I do think that if the study had suggested that people [who spend a lot of time online were happier], it wouldn't have gotten the same ink.
Senior culture writer Steve Silberman is an active member of The Well.
Related Wired Links:
New Survey: Generation Gap Online
Your Thoughts: A Permanent Public Record
The Epic Saga of The Well
Growing a Community: More How-To Tips
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