ll of the studies agree that email is the most common usage of the Internet (except in the UCLA study, where it ties with web surfing for most common). According to the Pew study, 87% of Internet users who access the Internet on a given day use email. People are also very dependent on email: if asked to give up email, 77% of users in the Pew study said they would miss it and 49% said they would miss it a lot. So how can a social technology that allows people to communicate lead to social isolation? Kraut, primary author of the Carnegie Mellon HomeNet study, thus titled his paper "Internet Paradox: a social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well being." Although researchers agree that email is the most common usage of the Net, and that it is used to keep in touch with friends and family, they disagree as to the types of interactions that happen over email, and whether email communication is as meaningful as talking on the phone.
Many people use email to stay in touch with relatives and friends who live far away geographically. For example, many parents use it to communicate with children who go away to college. Here is where the debate arises: is it better to communicate with long distance friends by email, or does that take away from more personal types of communication, such as phoning them? The Pew study found that email made users feel closer to friends and family, an effect found more with women users than men. For example, 55% of Internet users say their email exchanges have improved their connections to family members, and 66% say the same thing for significant friends. About 60% of users say that because of email they communicate more with significant friends and family members. So it would seem that email improves communication with long distance family members and friends
However, the Carnegie Mellon study concludes that "strong ties maintained at a distance through electronic communication are likely to be different in kind and perhaps diminished in strength compared with strong ties supported by physical proximity." Kraut focuses on the type of communication, and believes that faraway friends "are not embedded in the same day-to-day environment, they will be less likely to understand the context for conversation, making conversation more difficult." But when physical proximity is impossible, isnt electronic communication better than none at all? It is hard to understand Krauts conclusions when faced with the fact that people seem to be emailing more with long-distance family and friends; to understand them better, we have to look at the types of communication going on.
Krauts conclusions do seem to have some validity in regard to the types of messages people write. The Pew study found that 62% of those who email relatives say that because of email they can stay in touch without having to spend as much time talking. Although the Pew study presented it as a "new line of communication," critics of the Internet would have viewed this as a decrease in the strength of the relationship, because the communication is not as in-depth. Also, email (as opposed to phone calls or chatting) is not interactive; it is a one-sided letter, albeit less formal and more convenient. The Pew study commented that, "many siblings send electronic messages to each other more often than they place phone calls it is possible that email represents additional communication that might not otherwise occur." But it is also possible that the convenience of email is making a more impersonal form of communication preferable to phone calls. For example, 23% of children who email their parents believe that email is too impersonal to use with their parents (as compared to 13% of parents). Users from both the Carnegie Mellon and Pew studies agreed that they preferred email to other forms of communication because of its convenience.
Email is the most commonly used Internet tool, so it is important to monitor its usage. Based on the studies, it seems that email is good at increasing communication for long distance relationships, especially since it is cheaper than telephoning. But a disadvantage may be that the convenience of email makes it easy to substitute a more impersonal form of communication for other forms of communication, such as phone calls. So quantitatively, email may help communication to increase, but qualitatively it may lead to a decrease.