ILLUSTRATION: Carl Wiens
Man is a social animal.
Back in 1996, Craig Howe, who was then the director of the D'Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History at Chicago's Newberry Library, wrote that the "Internet is either antisocial or asocial. It promotes the isolation of the individual." In his 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil , the astronomer Clifford Stoll described the Internet as "a guide of how to be antisocial in that it undercuts our schools, our neighborhoods, and our communities."
Such sentiments were easy to find when the Internet's accession to global domination was just revving up. Conservatives, curmudgeons, and schoolteachers with too-tight hair buns all predicted that the Internet would produce societal breakdown and individual meltdown, but a funny thing happened on the road to ruination: nothing much. Society as a whole remains intact, and a few cases of Internet addiction notwithstanding, online users seem no worse off.
In fact, if the words and phrases dominating Internet discourse lately are any indication, we’re in the midst of the opposite phenomenon: the return and revitalization of social life. It all began a few years ago with the rise of social networking : using a Web site to connect with people who share similar interests, particularly those in the site’s database who are connected to each other as friends, friends of friends, and so on. The impetus behind such sites is the famous (and grossly simplified) meme of six degrees of separation, which would place everyone on the planet just six social links away from everyone else. (The social networking patent used by sites such as LinkedIn.com and Tribe.com is often called the six degrees patent.)
The phrase social networking dates at least as far back as 1976, when it applied purely to the nondigital marshaling of personal contacts to exchange information, enhance job prospects, or otherwise further one’s career. It reached full flower during the go-go 1980s, those heady quid-pro-quo, win-friends-and-influence-cocktail-party-people days. By the mid-1990s, though, the phrase faded from view, having become encrusted in a thick layer of irony and comedians’ jokes. It’s not that the idea and practice of networking no longer existed; ”It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” remained the received (if rather clichéd) wisdom. Nowadays, however, with millions of people registered on sites such as Friendster.com and LinkedIn, it’s not what you know, it’s who you can find online.
The last year or two has also seen the advent of MoSoSo -mobile social software—which enables you to use your mobile phone to find and interact with people near you. People often use MoSoSo for approximeeting , getting together with one or more people by first arranging an approximate time or place and then firming up the details later on, usually via cellphone. Or they might engage in social swarming , the rapid gathering of friends, family, or colleagues using cellphones, pagers, and instant messaging.
Another aspect of this social renaissance is one that I've mentioned in previous columns: the rise of sites that rely on user feedback and, increasingly, user-generated content (UGC) . The generic term for such sites is social media (although you also see we media or WeMedia ). What distinguishes such sites is social information . Whether it's links analyzed by Google, book reviews on Amazon, "diggs" on the social news site Digg.com, or the virtual economy on Second Life, the most vital sites on the Web these days all include a social component. That's true also for code added to an open-source software project, comments on blogs, and mashups that create social mapping services for locating rental apartments or whatever.
That's not to say that the emerging social Web is a more perfect virtual union. For example, you can now sense a kind of triumphalism that insists that social networks are the only way to go and that collectivist solutions will be the savior of humankind. The computer scientist Jaron Lanier calls this digital Maoism and insists that individuals can still make a difference.
Another problem is what sociologists call homophily , or a preference for people with the same tastes. This leads to homogeneous networks and to cyberbalkanization , the division of the Internet into narrow, like-minded groups. Finally, there are the social freeloaders , who use social media but don't contribute.
These are no doubt just the growing pains of a new medium. One thing's for sure, though: no one will ever again be able to accuse the Internet of being antisocial.
About the Author
Paul McFedries is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases (http://www.wordspy.com).