Sunday, July 31, 2005

Myths of Internet Communication

The internet is often regarded as an amazing advance in human communication, akin to writing, the printing press and the telephone. Through it one can communicate with someone halfway around the world, and to judge by the huge number of chatrooms, blogs, and posting boards that fill cyberspace today, a lot of people are taking advantage of this new technology, myself included. But the question keeps coming back to me: if this new tool of communication is indeed working so well, why is human society more polarized than ever? Shouldn't the internet make it possible for two differing views to work out their differences through a posting board or chatroom, and spare us all the painful violence of terrorism and war?

There are, no doubt, many reasons the rosy scenario has not come to be, but in my own experience it can be summed up rather neatly: the internet merely makes communication possible -- it does not make it happen.

Or it makes it happen in unexpected ways.

By this I mean the phenomenon of internet subcultures. Anyone who has surfed the web for any length of time can tell you that virtually any possible interest is represented there. Pick a hobby, and it will have both a web presence and a group who use the internet to explore and enjoy their shared interest. Most of the time this is a good thing, since this sort of communication allows those with shared interests, particularly if there are only a few of them, to coordinate their interests and activities. Sometimes, as in the case of terrorist, racist, or pedophilic groups (and I refuse to provide links to any of them here), this has been a decidedly bad thing, since these groups do no good for anyone and having a way for them to coordinate merely means more work for the law-enforcement agencies whose purpose it is to monitor them and shut them down.

But another question arises from this: does the existence of the internet facilitate the relations of subcultures with those outside them? In one sense it does, since after a Google search one can get in touch with such groups, and so new members can be brought in. As well, such websites allow idle surfers such as myself to explore the world in ways we might never otherwise. I'm not a member of any BDSM groups myself, but what I was able to learn from their websites, chatrooms, and posting boards was invaluable in writing the novels I have. Provided one is able to evaluate the quality of internet sources, one can learn a lot from the web.

As well, however, there is a clear tendency for online groups to form cliques. The anonymity allowed by the internet means that troublemakers can enter groups for the sole purpose of disrupting them. As well, the fact that internet communication does not usually take place face-to-face seems to encourage some to dispense with the social rules of polite behavior that are required to keep many face-to-face encounters from becoming brawls. It is easy to forget that each name on your screen is another person, and this often leads internet arguments down far more angry and even destructive paths than normal ones.

The result is that internet cliques are often quite careful as to who they allow in, who they trust, and in this way they are just like cliques in the real world, and for much the same reasons. Regulars become known and acceptance must be earned. Obviously this process will vary from group to group; a group dedicated to a stigmatized fetish like BDSM will be more careful than one devoted to the growing of water lilies or fruit trees. But all will work as human groups always do.

And so in this sense I must conclude that the internet both has and has not facilitated human communication. It has made small groups possible that would never have been possible before, but it has not changed the underlying human animal. We are still social in the same way we were before, with enemies and friends and hierarchies and opinions. On the internet, as in life, disagreements are often settled by separation, with the two parties forming their own little societies that do not commingle. Perhaps this is for the best, since perhaps we simply aren't really ready for the full impact of our latest technological marvel yet.

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