Social Forces 82.3 (2004) 1213-1214
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While the popular media continues to focus disproportionately on wired weirdness — the offbeat and the faddish — social scientists have been chipping away at the early myths and misconceptions about the so-called virtual world. Indeed, a central finding has been that most online activities are highly integrated into other daily activities, not an escape into some different world.
The nineteen studies in The Internet in Everyday Life, along with an excellent introduction by editors Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite, serve to make a powerful collective statement both about the domestication of the Internet in everyday life and about the need for new kinds of questions and methodologies in the next generation of Internet studies.
In a foreword, Howard Rheingold notes that we no longer need to rely on "data-free philosophizing" and that the early questions that researchers posed "were themselves the first problem to solve." Such questions looked for universal answers to dichotomous questions about empowerment, addiction, alienation, and the like. Series editor Manuel Castells extends this point to note that "rather than analyzing the impact of the Internet on society, the key issue is to understand the effect of society on the Internet."
While on the cusp of this transition to a more contextualized study of Internet usage, the chapters vary in the degree to which they cross this threshold. The pull of dichotomous questions and broad generalizations about people in general remains strong. The studies make important statements at this level — based mainly on large-scale surveys and quantitative analyses — but collectively also point toward the need for more fine-grained and context-specific studies. It seems likely that the next generation of Internet scholarship will make more use of the qualitative and ethnographic approaches found in the more contextualized chapters on lifestyle changes and Internet use; e-mail and gender; ethnicity and Internet usage; distance learning; home-based work; and scientific communication in Kerala.
The volume's central contribution is to document the fact that for several hundred million people around the globe, the Internet has become an integral part of everyday life. Furthermore, early fears and research findings about isolation, loneliness, and retreat from real-life interaction and community have not been supported by the accumulated body of Internet research. The chapters collectively make a strong case that for most people, the Internet has increased social contact, community, and social capital, and that the overall results have been beneficial for individuals and societies. Going a step further theoretically, [End Page 1213] the editors suggest a societal shift toward "networked individualism." The individual, as Wellman likes to state, has become the portal.
The findings in dozen or so chapters that take up the question of how online activity relates to broader patterns of communication and community are strikingly uniform in their positive conclusions, with the exception of a time diary study by Nie, Hillygus, and Erbring. These researchers report finding a "strong negative impact on time spent with friends and family," a reduction of physical time together approaching one hour a week. They depict time spent online, including doing e-mail, as time spent "in isolation" and argue that the internet has a greater isolating potential than television. This dissenting chapter makes clear the degree to which much of the debate is about conceptualization and operationalization. Certainly the thrust of the volume as a whole is to challenge this radical separation of online and physical communication.
While most of the contributors do not shy away from words like beneficial and positive, there is one potentially worrisome finding that emerges. Internet usage tends both to reflect and to reinforce preexisting competencies and activities. Several of the longitudinal studies show growing differences between Internet users and nonusers over time. Especially in light of the widespread recognition that the digital divide involves much more than access, this finding raises questions about new sources of inequality in a networked society.
The volume includes a...