Mac Musings

The Social Internet

Daniel Knight - 2000.02.19 -

By now you've probably heard about the new Stanford study on "Social consequences of the Internet" (Study Takes Early Look at Social Consequences of Net Use) that paints Internet users as a lonely bunch who prefer computers to people.

Well, it just isn't so - and the proof is in the data.


The most important question in any survey is, "How did they get their data?" In this case, the researchers surveyed 4,113 adults in 2,689 households. The survey was conducted online, which seems odd, since they claim to have surveyed Internet nonusers. (Maybe, like a lot of us, they don't consider WebTV* real Internet access. Or maybe they mean people who hadn't used the Internet prior to joining their study - but then they shouldn't label them nonusers.)

Researchers stress that they surveyed "a large, representative sample of American households including both Internet users and nonusers." This makes me wonder, what is the point of polling nonusers when surveying Internet use habits? On the other hand, this does rule out online surveys as the method used to gather data, since nonusers would not be able to participate.


A key finding of the study is that "the more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings," said Stanford Professor Norman Nie, director of Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society and principal investigator of the study.

By definition, Internet use and spending time with real human beings appear to be mutually exclusive. That's not necessarily so. Using the Internet can be a social experience, whether using the Web with friends sharing your computer or interacting with people online.

The study seems to restrict social interaction to what takes place in physical space. "The Internet could be the ultimate isolating technology that further reduces our participation in communities even more than television did before it," Nie said.

What Do Users Do on the Internet?

The researchers asked 4,113 adults in 2,689 households what they did on the Internet, offering a list of 17 options. Here are the results:

  1. Email, 84%
  2. General information, 66%
  3. Surfing, 64%
  4. Reading, 60%
  5. Hobbies, 58%
  6. Product information, 52%
  7. Travel information, 42%
  8. Entertainment/games, 32%
  9. Work/business, 28%
  10. Buying, 24%
  11. Chat rooms, 22%
  12. Stock quotes, 19%
  13. Job search, 19%
  14. Homework, 14%
  15. Auctions, 9%
  16. Banking, 7%
  17. Trading stocks, 4%

Surprisingly missing from the list: instant messaging.

What's interesting is that the top use of the Internet, email, is most definitely a form of social interaction, as are using the phone, regular mail, or meeting in physical space. In fact, I've found email a great way to create new communities of people with similar interests regardless of physical proximity.

Rather than isolating me, email has made me part of several communities, allowing me to interact with thousands of Internet users around the world on a regular basis. Yet the study states the Internet isolates users.

Chat rooms and instant messaging (not surveyed) are other ways for users to interact socially on the Internet, yet the biases of the researchers imply that these are inferior (not just different) forms of social interaction - if they are even considered social interaction.

Internet Use Reduces Social Interaction

There are several ways to look at this one.


The more time people spend on the Internet, the less they spend in offline social activities such as using the telephone or spending time with people.

If you discount online interaction, then every hour spent on the Internet is one less hour spent talking on the phone, socializing, reading a book, watching TV, or shopping. Of course, not all of these are considered social interaction. I'm much more selective when watching TV now than I was before the Internet - I think that's a good thing.

We need a research project to tell us this?

At least they add this thought: "it is unclear to what extent this represents a shift to email even in communicating with friends and family, or a technical bottleneck due to a single phone line being preempted by Internet use." So there is some acknowledgment of a social dimension to Internet use.

Media Competition

Another conclusion of this research is that Internet users spend less time with "traditional" media. Again, each hour spent online is one less hour watching TV, reading the newspaper, etc.

But this is a good thing. TV remains essentially a barren wasteland with a few oases (except for Star Trek: Voyager reruns and The Pretender - or whatever your favorites happen to be).

On the other hand, I read a lot more news now than I used to, both online and in print. For the first time in years I'm actually looking at the daily Grand Rapids Press on a regular basis. The Internet has increased my desire to assimilate information.

But the study also claims you can't surf and watch TV at the same time. This is obviously flawed. Sure, with the WebTV consoles required for this study you can't do both (unless you have two TVs in the same room), but I get to listen to Drew Carrey, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Whose Line Is It, and more when using the Internet, since my computer is in the family room. And some computer users have tuners that even let them watch TV on their computer while doing something else.

TV watching and Internet use are not mutually exclusive.

Internet Use Reduces Shopping, Commuting

Hey, that's a good thing. I hate the malls, especially during the holiday season. It's a hectic environment I'd just as soon avoid - and the Internet helps me do that.

As for commuting, it still takes me 20-25 minutes to get to work or home. I don't see how the researchers can claim the Internet reduces commute time, especially since they also maintain there is no indication that telecommuting is actually taking place. (This would be news to a lot of businesses!)

The Internet does reduce the amount of time I spend driving, since I am less likely to go to the mall, but it has not reduced my commute.

Social Isolation

The worst thing the study does is try to paint all of us (you're an Internet user - or you wouldn't be able to read this) as a bunch of isolated loners.

Believe me, I was much more of a loner before the Internet than I am today. The Internet is liberating, not restricting. Instead of not fitting into certain social situations, the Internet lets us find new social situations where we fit right in. For me, that tends to be among Mac users. And we do create communities, although they work differently from the traditional physical ones.

The Internet is simply a different way of interacting with data and people. It's a great way to research, shop, and make friends. It's no more threatening to our social aspect as human beings than the telephone (can you imagine this type of research in the 1920s claiming people will stop meeting in person because of the telephone, then demonstrating that each hour spent on the phone reduced the time spent meeting with people).

If anything, it's far more social than TV, which in many ways is the bane of modern existence. (So many channels, so little worth watching - and I don't even have cable.)

Rather than fearing the Internet, the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society should look at how people interact socially because of the Internet. I know people all over the world and interact with them regularly. That would never have happened before the Internet.

* Researchers supplied survey participants with WebTV.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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