An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

Confession #93: I’m Only Socially Isolated When We’re Together

The latest Pew Internet study indicates that Internet users are more likely to be socially engaged and active partipants in groups than non-Internet users. The folks over at ReadWriteWeb provided a reaction to the survey that’s representative of much of what I’ve seen on the web.

That old stereotype that Internet users are isolated and anti-social is getting harder and harder to justify … Internet users are actually more active in voluntary groups and organizations than non-Internet users.

This data is hardly groundbreaking. More than a year ago, news sites were reporting on another Pew report that indicated that people who use social networks are more likely to be social in real life too.

Fears that the Internet and other personal technologies are making Americans socially isolated are unfounded…

People who use the Internet … and social networks benefit from being more likely to have a larger, more diverse core of close confidants.

While many tech journalists like to set up a strawman argument suggesting an old stereotype about Internet users being anti-social and isolated, I’ve never actually heard anyone try to make that case.

First, just about everyone you might compare yourself to is an Internet user at this point. The biggest Luddites I know are following me on Twitter and suggesting books that I should download to my Kindle. When is the last time you were at a social event and heard someone say, “The Internet, eh? Never use it. Tell me more.”

Second, it makes perfect sense that people who tend to engage with other people online would have carried that trait over from their offline lives. Social networks are not a great place to be alone. Why would they attract users who tend to be socially or civically isolated?

We’re focused on the wrong question. We should be less worried whether Internet users are socially engaged in the real world and more worried about the quality of those social interactions.

The Internet is an ideal way to connect with others, organize groups and plan terrestrial gatherings. The problem is that when we get together, we bring the Internet with us.

Next time you’re sitting in a theater before a movie starts, see how long it takes before everyone is staring at their phones. When I go to a cafe, I see tables of people who have their heads down, eyeballs locked on a device or laptop screen. I can’t remember the last time I went out to a restaurant and didn’t see at least one or two phones out per table. Parents and kids sit in the same family room, each tapping away in their own worlds.

Internet users’ biggest social challenge is that we’re Internet users. We came. We saw. We checked-in. We Tweeted. We Facebooked. We Podcasted. We Instagrammed. We left. And we went home and got online.

The web is great at closing the geographic gap between people in different regions. But it’s also great at separating people who are standing right next to each other.

And I’m not pointing fingers here. I can last through about four seconds of silence before I check my email and Twitter. I open my phone apps everywhere: in cars, in lines, when I’m with my son waiting for his school bus, at dinner parties, while watching TV with my family, and yes, while I am socially engaged with a civic-minded group. At times when it’s just too inappropriate to get online, I long for that glorious moment when a person in my proximity asks, “Hey, can someone look that up?”

When I hear those words, I pull my phone out of its holster with the pace of a gunfighter whose life is on the line. I’m the Cupertino Kid.

And then I’m there, at my civic-minded social event. But I’m also gone.


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My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.