The growth of online communities has exploded in the last year as more people connect online, but is the Internet fostering new relationships or increasing social isolation?
The information age has seen a rise in groups of people communicating electronically rather than face to face. ‘Social networking’ has become the latest buzzword across the globe. Ask anyone you meet these days what type of music they are into and they are likely to refer you to their MySpace page.
MySpace has become a global phenomenon since it launched in 2003. It achieves nearly 80 percent of all visits to social networking websites, and has accumulated 54 million users since it began three years ago.
But as more and more people choose to socialise through the Internet, is online social networking encouraging social interaction, or causing people to switch off from the real world? Experts are deeply divided on the subject.
There is no doubt that web 2.0 is bringing more people together. Sites like MySpace allow like-minded people to connect by the click of a button.
Online communities allow users to form a large social network quickly and easily. You can add friends of a friend to your profile list and before you know it your social network can extend to more than a hundred people.
It is no wonder that people, like Theodora Stites in her article We just clicked’, are asking, “why bother actually meeting someone when you can have a network of virtual friends at the press of a button?”. But it is exactly this problem of ‘making friends’ that is problematic.
Impact on Friendship?
Critics argue that online communities are a false environment and that the friendships’ that are formed there lack substance.
The main criticism of MySpace is the huge amount of private information held on profiles. A new friend can find out intimate information in seconds, the kind of information that takes time to be revealed in a real friendship.
Friendships can become are numerical only. People add contacts they don’t really know to their list in a bid to improve their popularity.
So, while a user may have a hundred or more ‘friends’ on their list, these people aren’t necessarily real friends.
Mark Vernon, author of ‘The Philosophy of Friendship’ is concerned about friendships on line. He thinks it is important that people realise the limitations of the Internet, as he points out blogs and profiles are measured in hits, but friendships are measured in years’.
He is worried that people may be losing their skills to interact in real life, ‘it is possible that people might become addicted to… a one dimensional form of communication…and become de-skilled in other forms of social interaction…ones that are important for quality human relationships’.
What about Internet Addiction?
More worryingly, people who spend long periods of time online could be at risk of developing Internet Addiction Disorder. Jonathan Bishop, a virtual community developer says that it is not that Internet that people are addicted to, but ‘the social experiences that are offered by the Internet’.
MySpace gives users the freedom to be who they want to be, without inhibitions. In a society that judges people mainly on appearance, being neither seen nor heard offers users the freedom to live in a fantasy.
In this world without rules people can begin to find online interaction more exciting and fulfilling than real life. Doctor Michael Reddy, a clinical psychologist, argues that when people get absorbed into the fantasy world online, the problems start’.
To belong to an online community users have to keep updating their profile. This means that the nature of online relationships makes them more addictive.
Dr Michael Reddy says that addiction to the Internet is simply explained by the fragility of online relationships, people are afraid of losing contact…if they don’t get online they will be forgotten’.
Dr Michael Reddy believes that when ‘people become engrossed in an online presence… it threatens terrestrial relationships’, and it is easy to see how online communities offering people the possibility of a highly engrossing ‘other life’ could be causing people to turn off from real life
The long-term implications of the Internet on people and their social interaction is not yet clear. As time goes on people are becoming more and more reliant on technology for almost every part of their life.
Online is a world where you can be who you want to be and be friends with who you want. It is very engrossing, but the real question is, do you want to sit in front of a computer screen all day?