It may be hard to believe, but a generation ago you could be in touch with another person only by speaking face-to-face, by letter, or by a telephone hard-wired to a fixed line – no conversations while walking down the street, no texting, no IM-ing, tweeting, etc. These days it seems hard keep out of touch with people. For many of us, especially those who actually once used telephone booths and penned invitations, the new technologies obviously must have altered social life, must have changed people’s relationships with one another. But did they?
Social scientists who try to measure just what, if anything, the e-technologies changed in people’s social lives, however, require some hard evidence. And the evidence we have in hand – so far, at least – reveals a much less dramatic history.
(Disclosure: This is the last in a series of posts that draw from my new book, Still Connected: American Families and Friends since 1970. This post covered friendships and this post discussed family ties.)
Researchers have studied the effects of cell phones and the internet largely by comparing early users to non-users or heavy users to light users of the web. The first reports from the research were gloomy (“A Newer, Lonelier Crowd Emerges in Internet” – New York Times, 2000). They suggested that early internet adopters were burrowing away from family and friends and connecting to faceless strangers far away, if to anybody at all. As the research accumulated, and probably more importantly, as internet use spread from a minority of enthusiasts to a majority of casual users, the tone changed. Indeed, one researcher whose 1995 study had helped prompt worries decided several years later that those concerns were overblown — and so did the New York Times (“Cyberspace Isn’t So Lonely After All,” 2001).
We really won’t know what difference digital communications have made to Americans’ social lives for several years when we can get a good look at long-term data. But the studies that we do have (reviewed, for example, here, here, and pdf) suggest these broad-stroke conclusions:
* Using the internet and email does not much affect how often people, on average, get together face-to-face. (Particularly sociable people seem to employ the internet to multiply in-person encounters and particularly unsociable people apparently use it to minimize such encounters.)
* Using the internet and email increases the total volume of communication people have with others, more so with friends than with relatives.
* People overwhelmingly use the technologies to sustain or re-activate existing relationships. New personal relationships do form over the internet, but that is the exception. (An interesting exception is the tiny but growing percentage of people who meet their spouses on the internet, especially via e-dates – perhaps 2 percent of recent marriages.)
* Users usually claim that the devices enrich their personal relationships.
It is reasonable to suppose that the internet enabled Americans to form thousands of specialized online “communities of interest” — sets of people who discuss, say, their interest in Hungarian silent films, or, more critically, ways to cope with an unusual disease. I do not know whether anyone has yet documented such a development. In any event, a flowering of specialized interest groups would rarely affect individuals’ close relationships.
This initial research, about a decade-and-a-half’s worth, suggests that the vast expansion of electronically-mediated communications that occurred between 1970 and 2010 made it easier for Americans to stay involved with family and friends but did not revolutionize their social relationships. While access to the internet may have vastly expanded Americans’ circle of acquaintances – the 500 Facebook “friends” sort of thing – it probably only marginally affected their close, personal relationships.
Non-researchers who read or hear this sort of conclusion are skeptical. Something as big as the internet/cell phone explosion must have big social effects, they reason. And everyone has an anecdote, or two, or three as illustration – say, about long-lost high school sweethearts who find each other on Facebook and then marry. Without dismissing these cases, the overall effect of the new technologies has, as of now, been modest. So far, by far, people’s social lives remain focused on their immediate families, the people they see at work, in the neighborhood, or at church, and the few close friends they picked up from childhood, school, college, early jobs, and current activities. The internet seems to supplement a bit, not displace.
An Egyptian Epilogue
At this writing, the media (old and new) are abuzz about how the cell phone and the internet enabled the uprising that chased Hosni Mubarak out of the Egyptian presidency. There have been earlier versions of this story: Ukraine in 2004, for example.
The research question – to my knowledge, yet to be answered – is whether digital technologies should get any significant credit for such rebellions. After all, major popular uprisings predate the internet: for example, the fall of communist regimes Eastern Europe in 1989 (perhaps aided by television), or for that matter, the Russian Revolution of 1917 (perhaps aided by the press). Scholars of revolutions emphasize how important communication among the rebels is to the success of an uprising, but the medium of communication varies. In the case, for example, of the American and French revolutions, the key media were ink-smudged pamphlets and clandestine tavern conversations. The e-media may be not a revolution but an evolution in revolutions. Here, too, we’ll have to wait a while for the evidence to come in.