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Pew report: Internet to revolutionize social interaction.

Nothing has consumed the popular imagination and changed our lives in the past 30 years as the internet has. It's impossible to ignore the impact that it's had on commerce, communication, and social interaction since 1980.

According to a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in cooperation with Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center, 85% of experts polled in the survey say the internet will be a positive social force in the future, compared to 14% who said it would have a negative effect.


The report, the fourth "Future of the Internet" survey, is based on an online questionnaire given to nearly 900 specially selected experts. In the questionnaire, the respondents are asked to evaluate 10 "tension pairs," choosing the more likely of two predictive statements representing opposing outcomes on a similar theme. In addition to predicting an ongoing positive impact of the internet in general, the survey respondents tackled more specific topics, with a particular emphasis on the impact of the internet on social interaction.

"The net is about people connecting online, for commerce, politics, and personally, and we already see that enhances real-life relationships. Location-based social networking, in particular, will be a big part of our lives," says craigslist founder Craig Newmark in the survey report.

For each tension pair, respondents chose one of the two options, but the questions were designed to leave room for nuanced answers. As a result, even though the vast majority of respondents agreed that the internet would have a positive impact on human interactions, many of them had reservations. For instance, Robert Ferrell, a former systems security specialist at the U.S. Department of the Interior, reports that internet communication might help people overcome physical or emotional obstacles to social interaction in the future.

"If--and I believe this will happen eventually--the tendency to make remarks and adopt positions you would never consider in person can be overcome, online society stands a very real chance of taking interpersonal relationships to a level never before possible," according to Ferrell in the report. "Balancing out the anonymity and lack of physical contact is the ability to mask a plethora of medical and psychological conditions that until now have proven serious handicaps to social interaction. No one stutters or stammers on Twitter."

On the other hand, those who did not agree that the internet will benefit our social interactions worry about the predisposition of internet friendships and relationships to be more superficial than in-person relationships. This trend is already cropping up with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and online communities and may become particularly marked in younger internet users who don't remember a time before social networking.

"I got involved in social networks as an adult," according to author and consultant Reva Basch in the Pew report. "I wonder about younger people who haven't yet formed a solid [w]eb of real-life relationships or learned how to function in a meat-space social environment. I think there's a real downside there."

Another potential downside is the new set of idiosyncrasies of online communications. Because communicating over social networks and email is different than written and spoken communication, there are opportunities for exploitation by whoever figures the medium out first.

"Will relations improve? Hell yes, for the smart people who figure out what the technology can and can't do for them!" according to Pew respondent Mike Gale, director of decision-support systems of Decision Engineering Pty Ltd.

The rise of online interactions raises other issues, including a decrease in the importance of distance, both in terms of space and time. The most optimistic of Pew's experts anticipate online social networking generating a movement for worldwide understanding and cooperation.

"Any facility which brings people together in love and friendship, and enables love and friendship over greater distances and over greater boundaries, can only ever be a good thing. By 2020, integrated social networking, cross-national and cross-cultural dialogue, and internet-enabled friendships will be some of the great arguments for the social good of the internet," according to philosopher Francis J.L. Osborn of the University of Wales-Lampeter who responded to survey questions in the report.

In total, 895 experts responded to the questionnaire--371 of whom have participated in previous "Future of the Internet" surveys. The remaining 524 were recruited by other experts or by their association with Pew Research. Respondents work in various sectors of the information industry, including being affiliated with Google, NBC, Thomson Reuters, and various federal agencies and academic institutions. These respondents are overwhelmingly early internet adopters. Half of them have been using the internet since 1990, and 11% of them became actively involved before 1982. Because the respondents were selected, the results of "Future of the Internet" cannot be generalized, and there is no margin of error. Questionnaires were answered between Dec. 2, 2009, and Jan. 11, 2010. Previous "Future of the Internet" surveys were conducted in 2004, 2006, and 2008.
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Title Annotation:Pew Internet & American Life Project
Author:Baumann, Michael
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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