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Social Capital: Technology's Impact on Society

Social scientists shed new light on the relationship between broadband and community development.

by / November 25, 2009
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From the start of the electronic revolution, people have worried about technology's impact on society. To put it in scholarly language, they have worried about "social capital" -- a term coined by Harvard University's Robert Putnam to describe the benefits people gain from their relationships and membership in social networks.

Putnam tracked a decline in America's social capital over the last half century. He measured a decreasing membership in national organizations and less personal time committed to social causes. Putnam blamed the erosion on TV. His research seemed to show that each hour spent watching TV reduced by one hour a person's involvement in groups and also made viewers more skeptical about the motives of others.

Then along came the Internet, which intensified worries about social capital. The Internet is about interaction, so it's far more compelling than TV and radio. Writers, researchers and pundits began reporting what they saw as an epidemic of isolation, addiction and mental illness arising from Web usage.

Licensing the Devil in Our Hearts

In 1998, a study of 18,000 Internet users who logged on to the ABC News Web site found that nearly 6 percent of them met the study's criteria for compulsive Internet use. Nearly one-third of respondents said they regularly used the Internet as a form of escapism or to alter their mood. According to the study's author, David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet Studies, the addicted were far more likely to admit feelings of losing control on the Internet than nonaddicts. "The Internet is unlike anything we've seen before," he wrote. "It's a socially connecting device that's socially isolating at the same time."

Stanford University's Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society published a study in 2000 reporting that the Internet was creating a broad new wave of social isolation. "The more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings," wrote Professor Norman Nie, who led the study. A repeat of the study in 2005 showed that each hour on the Internet reduced face-to-face time by more than 23 minutes. As Nie put it, "Time is hydraulic." Not only does time spent online reduce in-person interaction with family and friends, he reported, but it's also associated with lower mental health scores.

But that's not the worst of it. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report called Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry. It stated that the Web's low cost, ease-of-use and anonymity made it an attractive medium for fraud, child sexual exploitation and cyber-stalking.

The report told frightening stories, like that of a 50-year-old former security guard who used the Internet to solicit the rape of a woman who rejected his romantic advances. The defendant terrorized his 28-year-old victim by impersonating her in various Internet chat rooms, where he posted messages that she fantasized being raped, along with her telephone number and address. On at least six occasions, men knocked on the woman's door saying they wanted to rape her. The perpetrator was eventually discovered, charged under a new cyber-stalking law, and sent to prison.

Fear of sexual predators tops the list of concerns about bad actors on the Web. American parents have been bombarded by statistics from two studies conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, which claims that "one in five youth have been sexually solicited online." Dark images of predators waiting to trap unwary children fill parenting magazines and Web sites.

Adapting to 'The New'

If this wave of research is taken at face value, the conclusion is clear: The Web is a destroyer of social capital. Power it up with broadband, and you have the makings of a virtual plague laying waste on a community.

But is that really so?

For a different point of view, consider the perspective of educator and attorney Nancy Willard, who writes for Education World. She noted that studies by the Crimes Against Children Research Center asked teens to report on "any situation where someone on the Internet attempted to get them to talk about sex when they did not want to or asked them unwanted sexual questions about themselves." As Willard wryly asked, "Now, you tell me how often that happens in middle and high schools every day." In the center's studies, she noted that 43 to 48 percent of the sexual solicitors were thought to be other teens. Twenty to 30 percent of them were thought to be between 18 and 25 years old, and only 4 percent were older than 25. More significantly, 70 percent of the young people surveyed indicated that the solicitation didn't make them feel upset or afraid.

This levelheaded response cuts to the core of concerns about the Web's impact on social capital. The Web appears to expand slightly the scope of human behavior that comes with bad consequences. But pathological gamblers are pathological whether they gamble online or in a casino, and an obsessive shopper doesn't need e-commerce to run up huge credit card bills.

In a word, all of these baleful behaviors are familiar. We have seen them before, and we shouldn't be surprised to see them again in the virtual world. Any technology that gives more scope to the human capacity for folly and evil is bad. But then, so are airplane crashes. Rather than outlawing air travel, however, we've worked hard to make it so safe that someone is far more likely to die in a car than an airliner. The same thing is happening online. Society is adapting to the virtual world by passing new laws, developing new systems and teaching children and adults to safely use the Web.

What's most revealing about this debate is what it says about us, not about broadband. When people think about how the Web is transforming lives, they focus on the negatives because they recognize them. New technology is blamed for societal changes; it's not viewed as a natural extension of existing problems that have moved into the new Web environment. What's seldom seen -- because people lack a mental framework for understanding -- are the new ways in which the Web is making a positive contribution to social capital.

Community Online or Online Community?

Six years ago, the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto studied the Web's impact on a mid-priced housing development near Toronto that provided broadband to most homes at 10 Mbps. The research sought to learn how living in "Netville," as it dubbed the community, affected people's online and offline community relations. The results suggested that high-speed Internet access supports neighborhood bonds rather than weakens them. Wired residents had much more informal contact with neighbors than did nonwired residents. They knew the names of 25 neighbors compared with an average of eight for nonwired residents, and wired people made 50 percent more visits to the homes of friends and acquaintances. At the same time, wired Netville residents maintained more long-distance contact with friends and relatives than nonwired residents.

The center also collaborated with the National Geographic Society's Survey2000, which sought to characterize Web users across North America. The survey found that heavy Internet users had a greater overall volume of contact with community members; frequent contact via the Internet was associated with frequent contact via other means. Another Canadian study from the University of Moncton challenged the notion that Internet use automatically detracts from family life. It tracked the person-to-person impact of introducing broadband into a rural Canadian community. More than 80 percent of respondents said they spent the same amount of family time together after introducing broadband into their home as

they did beforehand.

How can this be? Putnam's and Nie's reasoning seems unassailable: Time spent online is time that's no longer available for face-to-face involvement with family, friends and community life. Is time not really "hydraulic," as Nie said?

Not really. What Putnam and Nie failed to notice is the Web's power to let individuals do more in less time -- that is, to be more efficient. Time spent online isn't necessarily time taken away from family, friends and community. It can just as easily be time taken from standing in line at the bank, dazed hours spent wandering the shopping mall, an evening devoted to television, weekends spent comparison shopping, time spent researching health issues, or finding advice and support for everything from hobbies to emotional problems.

Building Social Capital Online

In 2008, Don Tapscott wrote Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. It described today's young men and women of the Net generation as "smarter, quicker and more tolerant of diversity than their predecessors." As demonstrated in the Obama presidential campaign, "these empowered young people are beginning to transform every institution of modern life."

Tapscott believes that the experience of parents who grew up watching television is different than the 20,000 hours on the Internet spent by today's typical 20-year-old American. "The Net generation is in many ways the antithesis of the TV generation," he wrote. Rather than leaning back on the couch as passive consumers of media, they lean forward to interact, choose and challenge.

In November 2008, the MacArthur Foundation published results of the Digital Youth Project, a three-year ethnographic study of how young people use new media. The foundation found that kids use social networking sites, online games, video sharing sites and mobile phones to connect with peers in new ways. But the needs served by these activities are as old as time.

Most kids use online networks to extend friendships they already have in school, religious organizations and sports. In what the report called "friendship-driven" practices, children are essentially hanging out online, as they would otherwise do at school, the mall, at home or on the street. Hanging out may seem a waste of time to adults, but clearly it's an exercise that builds community bonds and engages young people in local culture.

The study concluded that youth are picking up basic social and technological skills that they need to fully participate in society. They're building a shared understanding of how to present themselves online and how to manage relationships in the online world. In the process, they are developing new genres of written and multimedia communication, not to mention habits that bewilder their parents.

The work of these social scientists is shedding new light on the relationship between broadband and community development. These studies are beginning to tease out how people actually use broadband-based technologies -- as opposed to how people think they use them. Their primary goal is to slake a deep thirst for community, whether based on shared geography or interests. If the Digital Youth Project's results apply to the population at large, most people are using these digital interac┬Čtions to overlay and extend the physical realm. For them, the Web is increasingly providing a digital projection of life as it's lived within the community, and they're online to deepen engagement in it.