This is the second iteration of my paper describing how the internet has changed social interaction. The full document is 7 full pages of text, a title page, and one page of works cited. This essay is essentially my “final exam” entry for my FMS 110: New Media Studies class. I am releasing the full text under the Creative Commons 3.0 US Attribution Share-Alike license. You may reprint, edit, or do anything you want to this essay as long as you give me attribution for the original work and you redistribute any derivitive works for free under a similar license. There is also an attached .odt (open document standards are better than .doc!) file at the end with the full contents if you prefer to download the file.
The Internet and it’s Effects on Social Interaction in Modern Society. (Reprise)
For: FMS 110
Prof: Michael Burke
Prof: Matthew Rodgers
Before the popularization of the Internet, communication over long-distances for things such as friendships and relationships were limited to forms such as the telephone and the postal service. These methods of correspondence allowed for these relationships to exist, but only in limited form compared to what we have today. Writing letters takes time and dedication, and the message may take a matter of days or weeks before the it is even received on the other end, let alone responded to. While the telephone is in some ways equal to or better than the forms of communication discussed in this paper (ability to better convey emotions, and one can hear the other person’s voice), it is generally used in a much less casual way than the methods discussed. This paper will not discuss email in depth, as it would require repetition of information that will be included in other sections. Within the scope of the Internet, the three most significant effectors of social change are likely online chat mediums, social networking, and personal websites.
One of the first online social technologies that became popular to the masses is chatting. Online chats have existed since the beginning of the Internet, in forms similar to USENET (which was not implemented until 1979) and similar email lists and bulletin boards, however, these traditionally were used by the technologically elite, who usually do not appreciate the mannerisms and behavior of new or casual users. The fist major online chat service, IRC brought dynamic chat rooms. These rooms allow people to chat in “realtime” with groups of people regarding nearly any subject. ICQ (meant to be pronounced “I seek you”), released in 1996, was the first Internet-wide chat service that had the chat rooms similar to IRC, but also assigned permanent UIN (identification) numbers to each user. This promoted one-on-one chatting between users, encouraging friendships between specific users . However, an online dating program being the main business model behind ICQ likely scared away many people who would have been users at the time, because of the common negative opinion about online dating at the time. Perhaps if ICQ had focused equally on the other possibilities of their software in their early days they would have a larger share of the instant messaging market today. The next widely popular chat software after ICQ was AOL’s Instant Messenger, or AIM. This offered all of the features of ICQ, however with a focus more on talking to friends or people one might already know in the real world instead of meeting new friends online. These services are still available today, however ICQ has only a small fraction of the total instant messaging community, with approximately 15 million active users. The most popular instant message service on the Internet is QQ, which was released in 1998 meant to be an “oriental version of ICQ.” This service has about 318 million active users, almost all of whom are in China. AIM, released in 1997, has about 53 million active users.
When these chat services became popular among kids and teenagers, there was much controversy over the safety of online chat. Because there is no regulation in the chat rooms, especially in private chat, people can claim to be anybody. As a result of this, there were, and still are, many predators frequenting chat rooms with malicious intent should they convince somebody to meet them in person. There has since been a campaign alerting parents and children about the safety precautions that need to be taken to ensure this does not happen. Law enforcement agencies, and organizations such as Dateline NBC also work trying to catch these predators before they can cause harm. Chat services may have lost some members as a result of this, however, there are sill many people with active accounts.
These chat forms of communication allowed people to talk over long distances about anything they wanted to. The messages are transmitted and received instantly, however these mediums are less useful for archiving discussions (without installing additional or third-party software) than letters sent by post, or emails. Friends are able to have a “buddy list” of people they know, in order to see who is online and available to chat with at any time. This makes it possible to talk with people even if you may not necessarily know their schedule, and you can send a message without worrying about bothering somebody. Often, people activate instant messaging software every time they log onto a computer, making them available frequently, for long periods of time, and allowing conversations to start at nearly any time. One can prevent interruptions by using the “away” or “invisible” feature, which most major chat services enable. This feature tells other users that while you may be logged onto the service, you are not necessarily available for a conversation at the time. It is general convention to tell users why you are unavailable, or when you will be back in case somebody needs to contact you , however they can still send a message and it will still be received the same way as a regular message. Many businesses use Jabber (now XMPP) for on-site chat, because there is no centralized server. This allows for higher security, and makes for easier moderation of discussions . Keeping all of the chats within their own systems allows a company to take measures of security into their own hands, to prevent interception, or accidental release of sensitive data into the outside world. It also ensures that instant messaging will not be the cause of any viruses that may get into the system.
The changes in social habits brought by personal websites are also evident. Many families and individuals have personal blogs. These blogs are websites where posts are generally made in a journal style, reverse-chronological order entries that are often about personal events. This type of communication was previously reserved for long letters to relatives or very close friends, and things like Christmas letters to friends. While neither of the previous two have been replaced by blogging, it allows for many more people to subscribe (this involves RSS feeds) to your life and what is going on. There are many different kinds of blogs, and they can be used for many more applications than simple social connections. Some of the other kinds of blogs include video blogging (vlogs), and audio blogging (podcasts). These simply present what information the blogger wants to share in a video or audio format.
Businesses, companies, and individuals trying to promote products have also taken to creating blogs. Many traditional companies use a blog to alert their patrons of news, new information about the company, or simply to build a better relationship with customers. Even when used in a formal setting, a blog generally has a more personal feeling, and is not written with such a formal tone. This helps people to think of companies as being people, or at least more personable. There are also many new business models that have come out of blogging. Companies have sprung up posting information on blogs, sometimes news related, some are product reviews, and recently, productivity and “hacks” (used to describe a way of doing something more efficently or better than normally) blogs have become very profitable. These are generally or product mention supported. One very popular example of these corporate blogs is the Gawker Media Network. This company owns 11 blogs covering many different topics, including tech news, celebrity news, and a productivity blog called “Lifehacker.” Many book authors are also using blogs and podcasts to release their novels for free before publication. The idea behind this is that once there is a large listener base who is loyal, and already knows they like the story, they will be willing to purchase it once it comes out in print. This has worked quite effectively for the authors that have tried it, many making it on the New York Times Bestseller list, and on Amazon’s top sellers lists.
Similar to regular blogging, but used to a different extent, is microblogging. Microblogging is similar to blogging, however it generally has character limits of approximately 140 characters. This is often used for small insignificant messages that would not be appropriate for a regular blog, or a phone conversation. However, there are many very useful things people have done with microblogging, such as tracking insulin shots, diet, exercise, appointments, and quick notes. Frequent posting is usually achieved via SMS messaging. Because microblog posts can be done without being near a computer, they are an amazingly fast way to send news to a large group of people. The most popular microblogging website is currently Twitter.com, which allows you to have a list of people you “follow” (similar to a instant message buddy list) and if you choose, those people’s updates, or “tweets”, will be forwarded to your mobile phone, via SMS, or a “twitter client,” which is similar to an instant message client. Many businesses have begun to use twitter to help solve customer service issues and to quickly get news out to those who follow their company profile.
Social networking websites have, out of those mentioned so far, the greatest effect on modern social practices. The most popular social networking websites in North America, Facebook and Myspace, are also a good representation of features offered by the majority of this genre of site. The basic structure of these sites is that you add people as “friends” at which point you can see pictures of them (posted by themselves, or by others who know the person), read about their interests, what they are doing, and communicate with them. Much time is spent creating and updating one’s own profile, posting pictures and changing things like current status (very similar to microblogging discussed above.) This structure makes for constant updates and changes on each page, which means there will be very high page view counts, making this a perfect market for advertising. Advertisements are what support and make these social networking websites free to their users, and they generate a very high income considering that all content is user generated. Myspace and Facebook both have had different consequences on social interactions today. Myspace generally encourages adding as many people as friends as is possible, which creates many more opportunities for advertisement and unsolicited messages. This has affected many people in that they are now more worried about the number of friends they have, instead of worrying about quality relationships like people have in the past. However, this means that people are able to interact with many hundreds of people on a daily basis, people that they may never have met under normal circumstances. Differently, Facebook encourages only adding people you know or have met in person as friends. While it is possible to add people you have not met, if one indicates that they have never met the person it asks: “then why are you adding them?” This makes Facebook a more personal social networking site than Myspace is. While generally social networking websites require you to know a name, or find in a search people that you wish to add as friends, some networks offer a “people you may know” feature. This suggests people you may want to add as friends based on attending high school at the same time, or if you have a high number of friends in common. This enables people to find and keep in touch with casual acquaintances who may not have been a significant part in one’s life previously, but can become so.
One facet of social networking that is rarely looked at is videogames and virtual worlds. While videogames may have a social connotation of being an escape from real life, the opposite is starting to become true for many players. Most evident in MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games), people now have entire virtual worlds formed by game designers (who are becoming to be seen as artists) to socialize, live in, and to meet new people. Games like Second Life allow players to chat and meet with their friends, visit stores and businesses, and build their own home, however they want to. These kinds of games actually offer more opportunity to interact with people than their regular lives do. Even more traditional MMORPG games, like World of Warcraft have social structures in the form of clans, guilds, groups and raiding parties. People who are active in guild membership often meet socially or to discuss strategy in places other than the game, and most guilds heavily use audio chat software to coordinate while playing the game.
Overall, the many opportunities the Internet offers for new kinds of social interaction do effect our social lives today. Social networking, blogging, and instant messaging offer ways for people to stay in touch with those who would have been forgotten if only the previous methods of communication were available. However, on the downside, it dilutes a friendship to something that is only as involved as pressing a few buttons on a website. While it does not prevent the propagation of meaningful relationships, it may over time cause many to forget how it is appropriate to act with those you do not know in person.
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