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Tech tools may help pull people together
[November 05, 2009]

Tech tools may help pull people together

Nov 05, 2009 (San Jose Mercury News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- For years, the premise has been widely accepted as some great truth handed down from the mountain of academia, etched on a silicon tablet: Our modern tools of technology are isolating us from one another.

Think: the guy in his basement in boxer shorts hanging out online with other strangers passing in the cybernight.

Now, a new study released Wednesday suggests that rather than push us apart, these tech tools may actually help pull us together.

The millions of Americans who have embraced social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter might not be surprised by the new findings from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, showing that Web and cell-phone users tend to have larger and more diverse networks of close confidantes than those who do not use the Web or cell phones.

"Cell phones and the Internet help you connect to your tribe," says Bay Area entrepreneur Randy Hlavin. "Like-minded people can connect quickly through e-mail, then build relationships that deepen once they're face to face out in the community." In what's billed as a groundbreaking attempt to explore how people use the Internet and mobile phones to interact with key family and friends, the Pew survey could spawn a subtle shift in the way Americans view technology in their lives.

"All the evidence points in one direction," said lead author Keith Hampton with the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. "People's social worlds are enhanced by new communication technologies. It is a mistake to believe that Internet use and mobile phones plunge people into a spiral of isolation." Suzette Cavanaugh, an instructor in social-media marketing at the UC-Santa Cruz extension in Silicon Valley, agreed. "Earlier research made the false assumption that if you were not communicating face to face, you were socially isolated." "The reality is that the technology allows, and even encourages, more communication with more people." The Pew report is both a challenge to and an extension of a 2006 study that showed a dramatic increase in Americans' social isolation since 1985 and suggested that the Internet may have played a role in shrinking their so-called "core discussion networks," or the people with whom they discuss the most important issues of their lives, such as emotional and money concerns. Reporters at the time, says that report's co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin of Duke University, may have overplayed the tech angle, largely ignoring other possible alienating forces.

"I think the Pew report's data support the pattern we found that core-discussion networks have decreased over time," said Smith-Lovin. "We raised the idea that the Internet may have played a part in this pattern. They explored that and found that that was not the case, so now we have to look for other possible sources of the decline." Hampton and his colleagues said the 2006 study prompted them to look more deeply into the notion that technology use and social isolation are connected.

Pew's key findings suggest otherwise: --On average, the size of people's core networks is 12 percent larger among cell-phone users, 9 percent larger for those who share photos online, and 9 percent bigger for those who use instant messaging compared with people who do not use these tools. The diversity of the groups is greater, as well.

--Rather than keep people isolated and away from public places, Internet use is actually associated with engagement in places such as parks, cafes and restaurants, thus leading to increased exposure to a more diverse group of people and points of view.

--Cell phones trump landline phones as a primary method of staying in touch with close family and friends, but face-to-face contact still rules supreme. On average in a typical year, people have in-person contact with their core network members on about 210 days, while they connect by cell-phone on 195 days and by text-messaging 125 days.

More researchers see technology as a social adhesive rather than something driving us apart. Josh Bernoff with Forrester Research says, "a lot of people have difficulty forming friendships. But these new social channels are so diverse and so nonthreatening that they open people up and are likely to increase social interaction." But not everyone buys that. Linda Kahn, of San Jose, a 50-year-old graphic artist, said she feels as if "cell phone and IM use do isolate us as a culture. It seems people are more comfortable isolating themselves in front of a computer to 'speak to others' than to get out there and speak to them in person." Ultimately, Krishna Upadhya's views on the subject may be most representative. The 55-year-old biotech researcher from Union City said, "Certainly these tech tools help with connectivity, but at the same time they can isolate people as well." He points to his relationship with his own teenage son.

"My son comes downstairs to eat dinner and then disappears, back to chatting with his friends on the Internet," he said. "Sure, I can connect with my friends overseas now with the Internet and the cell. But at the same time, I feel like the Internet has robbed me and my son of our time together." Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689.

To see more of the San Jose Mercury News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

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