nettime's_rovink_reporter on Tue, 22 Feb 2000 01:30:02 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> NYT: Portrait of a Newer, Lonelier Crowd


February 16, 2000

Portrait of a Newer, Lonelier Crowd Is Captured in an Internet Survey 


SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 15 -- The nation's obsession with the
Internet is causing many Americans to spend less time with
friends and family, less time shopping in stores and more
time working at home after hours, according to one of the
first large-scale surveys of the societal impact of the

In short, "the more hours people use the Internet, the less
time they spend with real human beings," said Norman Nie, a
political scientist at Stanford University who was the
principal investigator for the study.  Mr. Nie asserted that
the Internet was creating a broad new wave of social
isolation in the United States, raising the specter of an
atomized world without human contact or emotion. 

That conclusion is certain to prove controversial because
some online enthusiasts contend that the Internet has
fostered alternative electronic relationships that may
replace or even enhance face-to-face family and social

"This is not a zero-sum game," said Howard Rheingold, author
of "Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic
Frontier" (Addison-Wesley, 1993). "People's social networks
do not consist only of people they see face to face. In
fact, social networks have been extending because of
artificial media since the printing press and the

The Stanford survey, which was conducted by the university's
Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society and will be
published on Wednesday, appears to offer an Internet-era
parallel to some of the findings of "The Lonely Crowd," a
landmark sociological analysis of American society in 1950. 

The book, written by David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and
Reuel Denney, described the changing American character and
chronicled the shift away from family and community-centered
life and the ascendance of mass media.  The Stanford study,
in turn, details how the Internet is leading to a rapid
shift away from mass media. The study reported that 60
percent of regular Internet users said they had reduced
their television viewing, and one-third said they spent less
time reading newspapers. 

Those regular users, spending at least five hours a week
online, represented about 20 percent of those surveyed and
were the group looked at most closely. In all, the study
found that 55 percent of those polled had Internet access at
home or work and that 43 percent of households were online. 

And the study found evidence that the Internet was allowing
the workplace to invade the home. A quarter of regular
Internet users employed at least part time said the Internet
had increased the time they spent working at home without
reducing the time spent at work. 

In the past Mr. Nie has been the author of studies on the
decline of American involvement in political and community
organizations. He said that while much of the public
Internet debate had been focused on the invasion of privacy,
little study had been done of the potential psychological
and emotional impact of what he said would be more people
"home, alone and anonymous." 

Mr. Nie, a co-author of the study with Prof. Lutz Erbring of
the Free University of Berlin, contended that there was no
evidence that virtual communities would provide a substitute
for traditional human relationships. 

"If I go home at 6:30 in the evening and spend the whole
night sending e-mail and wake up the next morning, I still
haven't talked to my wife or kids or friends," Mr. Nie said.
"When you spend your time on the Internet, you don't hear a
human voice and you never get a hug." 

The new study was based on a sample of 4,113 adults in 2,689
households.  It is the second major research project to
suggest that the advent of the Internet may have negative
social consequences. 

In August 1998 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University
reported that people who spent even a few hours a week
connected to the Internet experienced higher levels of
depression and loneliness. 

In contrast to the Carnegie Mellon study, which focused on
psychological and emotional issues, the Stanford survey is
an effort to provide a broad demographic picture of Internet
use and its potential impact on society.  "No one is asking
the obvious questions about what kind of world we are going
to live in when the Internet becomes ubiquitous," Mr. Nie
said.  "No one asked these questions with the advent of the
automobile, which led to unplanned suburbanization, or with
the rise of television, which led to the decline of our
political parties." 

"We hope we can give society a chance to talk through some
of these issues before the changes take place," he said. 

Americans overwhelmingly use e-mail as their most common
Internet activity, according to the Stanford researchers. 

Moreover, the report found that most Internet users treated
the network as a giant public library, albeit with a
commercial tilt. 

Despite the general perception that the Internet has become
a vast cybernetic shopping mall, the Stanford study
indicates that only 25 percent of the Internet users
surveyed make purchases online and that fewer than 10
percent do other types of financial transactions online,
like banking. 

Some critics strongly disagree with the researchers'
assertion that the Internet is leading to a new form of
social isolation. 

"It's true by definition that if you're spending more hours
hitting the keyboard you're not spending time with other
people," said Amatai Etzioni, a sociologist at George
Washington University. "But people do form very strong
relations over the Internet, and many of them are relations
that they could not find any other way." 

Mr. Nie disagrees, arguing that today's patterns of Internet
usage foretell a loss of interpersonal contact that will
result in the kind of isolation seen among many elderly

"There are going to be millions of people with very minimal
human interaction," he said. "We're really in for some
things that are potentially great freedoms but frightening
in terms of long-term social interaction." 

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: