Internet Seen as Positive for Social Relations

July 7, 2010

While they acknowledge that use of the internet as a tool for communications can yield both positive and negative effects, a significant majority of technology experts and stakeholders say it improves social relations and will continue to do so through 2020, according to the recent “Future of the Internet” study from the Pew Research Center‘s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.

Experts, General Public Share Optimism
Eighty-five percent of both technology experts and internet-using members of the general public agreed with the statement, “In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.”

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Twelve percent of experts, and 14% of the general public, agreed with the opposite statement, which said, “In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.”

The remaining 3% of experts and 1% of the general public did not respond to the question.

Despite General Optimism, Respondents are Realistic
Although general response to the likely effect of the internet on social relations in the coming decade was decidedly positive, respondents were realistic in their assessment and recognized the internet does carry potential negatives, as well.

Some survey respondents noted that with the internet’s many social positives come problems. They said that both scenarios presented in the survey are likely to be accurate, and noted that tools such as email and social networks can and are being used in harmful ways.

Among the negatives noted by both groups of respondents: time spent online robs time from important face-to-face relationships; the internet fosters mostly shallow relationships; the act of leveraging the internet to engage in social connection exposes private information; the internet allows people to silo themselves, limiting their exposure to new ideas; and the internet is being used to engender intolerance.

In addition, many survey participants said that while our tools are changing quickly, basic human nature seems to adjust at a slower pace.

Cost Benefit Cited
Many of the people who said the internet is a positive force noted that it “costs” people less now to communicate – some noted that it costs less money and others noted that it costs less in time spent, allowing them to cultivate many more relationships, including those with both strong and weak ties. They said “geography” is no longer an obstacle to making and maintaining connections; some noted that internet-based communications removes previously perceived constraints of “space” and not just “place.”

Internet May Redefine Social Structure
Some respondents observed that as use of the internet for social networks evolves there is a companion evolution in language and meaning as tech users redefine social constructs such as “privacy” and “friendship.” Other respondents suggested there will be new “categories of relationships,” a new “art of politics,” the development of some new psychological and medical syndromes that will be “variations of depression caused by the lack of meaningful quality relationships,” and a “new world society.”

A number of people said that as this all plays out people are just beginning to address the ways in which nearly “frictionless,” easy-access, global communications networks change how reputations are made, perceived, and remade.

Some respondents said that they expect technological advances to continue to change social relations online. Among the technologies mentioned were: holographic displays and the bandwidth necessary to carry them; highly secure and trusted quantum/biometric security; powerful collaborative visualization decision-based tools; permanent, trusted, and unlimited cloud archive storehouses; open networks enabled by semantic web tools in public-domain services; and instant thought transmission in a telepathic format.

Public Holds Optimism for Internet
In other responses to the “Future of the Internet,” respondents expressed optimism the internet will not reduce people’s intelligence and capabilities during the next 10 years. Experts and the general public agreed by solid majorities that unprecedented to access to more information (such as that offered by Google) will allow people to become smarter and make better choices, reading will survive, future gadgets will be radically different from those available today, and the internet will remain mostly unrestricted.

About the Data: A total of 895 people, including 371 technology experts, participated in this study.

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