The Internet: Bringing people together virtually or pushing them away physically?

Cartoon: neglecting parrot

The Internet has the unique ability to connect any user with any other user, according to any quality possible — relationships, beliefs, viewpoints, goals, problems, identity, or interests. For example, using email and chatting software, connecting with family and friends who are far away geographically is cheaper and easier than calling or writing letters. Using a combination of the World Wide Web, chatting software, email, and discussion groups, minority groups that may have been ignored by traditional media have come together online to share information, support each other, and organize events.

However, critics of the Internet believe that Internet use, while connecting more people virtually, makes people more isolated socially because the more time they spend online, the less time they spend interacting in real life. They believe that electronic communication is not as in-depth or reliable as communication in person or on the phone. Critics also see a possibility of the Internet breaking people apart into minority groups, as a result of less dependence on mainstream media, a phenomenon known as "balkanization."

Critical forecasts of the future of the Internet, for example in the movie The Net, show people whose only friends are online buddies, whose real names are not even known. In these distopian worlds, social relationships are not even based on reality, but on the façades of other online users, whose anonymous interactions can be untruthful and unreliable. These people work from home, so there is no interaction with fellow employees, and their social lives are mingled with their work, which both revolve around the Internet. These distopian views are countered by utopian views of a global village, where anyone can reach out to anyone else and geographic barriers are nonexistent, because the Internet allows users to be always connected.

The two opposing viewpoints about the Internet have been debated extensively in the past few years, in part because several studies have recently emerged to support the viewpoint that Internet use has a negative effect on personal lives. These studies concluded that, among other things, the more time people spend on the Internet, the less they interact with family and friends physically and over the phone, the smaller their social circles become, and the more they feel depressed. The survey methods have been heavily criticized and several other studies dispute their conclusions. As society rapidly approaches full Internet integration, it is important to consider the consequences of being connected virtually, and whether it is worth the risk of becoming disconnected physically.