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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 political life.

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, hardly surprising.

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 of us.

Kraut, R.M., et al.

“Internet Paradox: 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.

About the Author

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.

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