I Have Seen the Internet and It Is Us
The early days of the Internet were wild and wooly times. Everyone had the
ability to author, critique, publish, or simply read the content produced by
fellow travelers in cyberspace. There was promise for a level playing field
that did not favor kings, presidents, or the traditional power elite. Dave Clark
of M.I.T. once said of those developing the Internet, “We believe in rough
consensus and running code.”
But warning signs began to emerge, a paradox replacing the promise. The most
significant breakthrough in communications technology since the telephone seemed
to reduce social involvement and psychological well-being. Robert Kraut and
his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University published in 1998 a sobering view
of the Internet as a place of psychological danger marked by depression and
anomie. Social scientists looking at life online began to document examples
of “group polarization.” This phenomenon occurs where like-minded
people in isolated groups reinforce one another’s views, tilting them toward
increasingly extreme positions. Yet exposure to a wide range of opinions and
ideas is central to preventing community fragmentation. A world of seemingly
limitless choices can transform citizens into mere consumers, eroding common
Now, three years later, Kraut, et al.’s critical study has been extended
as he carefully followed his original sample as part of a continuing longitudinal
study. His new results suggest that the picture is, well, evolving. The Internet
has matured and the gloss of its youth has turned to reflect increasingly the
diverse nature of it user community, if “community” can still be used
to describe its users.
These latest results mirror a change in online users who now comprise a much
more representative cross-section of the U.S. population. After all, 60 percent
of U.S. households own a computer, and average online use is 20.7 hours per
week (as of July, 2001), increasing the likelihood that people will find others
like themselves in cyberspace.
It’s important to remember when Kraut’s original study began. The
year was 1995. The majority of the users of the nascent Internet were a self-selected
group of technologies and early computer aficionados. To do this experiment
the CMU study population was recruited with incentives that include computer
training and subsidies for online expenses. These subjects were naive computer
users—good in an experimental sense, as they represented a cross-section
of average people. However, they joined a largely techno-geek community of early
Web adopters. That they did not find many others like themselves is, in retrospect,
Internet users today tend to log on with something in mind to accomplish. They
no longer predominantly explore. They are not pioneers of the medium. They just
want to get something done more easily, faster, and cheaper. These utilitarian
expectations transform the Internet from more than a place to inhabit, but to
a place to do. What users will be allowed to do is shaped by how it is built.
In his 1999 book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig tells
us, “We can build, or architect, or code Cyberspace to protect values that
we believe are fundamental, or we can build, or architect, or code Cyberspace
to allow those values to disappear.” The Internet is indeed a reflection
Kraut, R.M., et al.
A Social Technology that Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological
Well-being?” American Psychologist
, 1998:53(9), 1017-1031.
Lessig, Lawrence Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace
. New York: Basic Books. 1999.
Phil Long, Ph.D. is senior strategist for the Academic Computing Enterprise at MIT. He is also a senior associate for the TLT Group
of the AAHE.
View more articles by Phillip Long.