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The Value Of Cyber-Friendship

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Cyberspace has given way to a new social dynamic where people make friends from across the globe, but know little of their next-door neighbor. The abandoning of the village mentality disturbs critics, but those who’ve been won over often find an Internet relationship more satisfying. Some new research is showing also how email and the Internet supplement, rather than replace, the communication people have with others in their network.

Homo Interneticus
“H. interneticus is sensorily fragmented, experiencing the body as a set of disparate and barely connected functions. The body figures increasingly as a collection of appendages to the mind. Meanwhile our minds unify through cyberspace into a kind of joint mind.”
Michael H. Goldhaber

This newly evolved form of hyper-connected human, or homo interneticus, has long been criticized for his lack of necessary social skills. His preference for textual relations over largely celebrated face-to-face interaction has given the traditionalist fits. In short, say critics, people are unlearning how to naturally interact with their neighbors creating a social (and assumedly superficial and false) network of strangers (and perhaps creating an alternate reality).

However, a report entitled “The Strength of Internet Ties” from Pew/Internet & American Life Project done in conjunction with the University of Toronto suggests a different scenario altogether. Sociologists are suggesting that the Internet helps cultivate social networks and put them into action when it matters most.

Bob next door knows squat about gardening and lawn care (obviously!), but IM buddy Gr33nThum does. Besides, Gr33nThum is more interesting and doesn’t do that annoying clicking sound when he talks.

45% Say The Web Helps With Major Life Issues Like:

Getting additional training for your career

Helping another person with a major illness or medical condition

Choosing a school for yourself or a child

Buying a car

Making a major investment or financial decision

Finding a new place to live

Changing jobs

Dealing oneself with a major illness or health condition

Friends often move, too. As kids, friends’ parents move away. As adults, we move away to college or for work. Communicative tools have made losing touch the result of sheer laziness, not distance.

“The larger, the more far-flung, and the more diverse a person’s network, the more important email is,” argues Jeffrey Boase, a University of Toronto sociologist who co-authored the Pew Internet Project report.

“You can’t make phone calls or personal visits to all your friends very often, but you can cc’ them regularly with a couple of keystrokes. That turns out to be very important.”

In addition to expanding and strengthening the social ties people maintain in the offline world, Internet and email provide a social and informational repository that help people make difficult decisions and face challenges. The survey found that Internet users are more likely than non-users to have been helped by those in their networks as they faced important events in their life.

“Internet use provides online Americans a path to resources, such as access to people who may have the right information to help deal with family health crises or find a new job,” says John Horrigan, Associate Director for Research at the Pew Internet Project and another author of the report. “When you need help these days, you don’t need a bugle to call the cavalry, you need a big buddy list.”

The fabled “village” is being replaced by “networked individualism,” says University of Toronto co-author Barry Wellman, as users of modern technology are less tied to local groups and increasingly tied to looser, more geographically scattered networks.

“The Internet and the cell phone have transformed communication: Instead of being based on house-to-house interactions, they are built on person-to-person exchanges,” said Wellman. “This creates a new basis for community. Rather than relying on a single community for social support, individuals often must actively seek out a variety of appropriate people and resources for different situations.”

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The Value Of Cyber-Friendship
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