Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Impersonal Internet?

One of my best friends lives over four hours away, but I never feel too disconnected from her thanks to the Internet.  I follow her posts on FaceBook, read her blog and look at her pictures on her Flickr account.  We do see each other a few times a year and I think those face to face meetings are key, but I give the Internet credit for keeping us connected in between times.  However, there are two schools of thought when it comes to how well personal connections translate on the Internet.

Some people believe that the Internet is making our society more disconnected and people more isolated.  In his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman claims, "it's hard to create a human bond with e-mail and streaming Internet."  He argues that a wired world is draining the personal touch from decisions and driving all decisions to the bottom line.  Rovai and Barnum (2003) cite research that classify online classes as "impersonal, superficial, misdirected, and potentially dehumanizing and depressing." 

Others see the Internet as a way to connect in new and meaningful ways.  Millions of people log into FaceBook every day just to connect with their friends online.  Think of all the singles who find their spouse online.  It doesn't get more personal than that!  With respect to distance learning, Rovai and Barnum also cite research that claims "strong feelings of community can be developed in distance learning environments."

So which is it? When considering online instruction, the quallity of offerings vary greatly.  As Rovai and Barnum state the effectiveness of an online course is determined by how the online medium is used not the medium itself.  Instructors can use online tools to "reduce social and psychological distance between people" (Rovai & Barnum, 2003).   I believe the Internet is neither inherently personal or impersonal.  The medium itself is neutral and can be used in impersonal or highly personal ways.  What is your experience?


Kerry Humphrey said...

I have a facebook but rarely do I use it as a way of communicating with anyone. I have friends who post their personal business for everyone to see. That is way too personal for me. I don't want to hear about your divorce on facebook, call me! But on the flip side, I live in a military town where deployment is an everyday way of life. My students are able to communicate with their loved ones over seas via Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail. I know there is nothing like having your love one right in front of you, but I am greatful for the avenues that are avaiable to keep as much of a personal relationship as possible. I truly think you hit the nail on the head when you said that "the medium itself is neutral and can be used in impersonal or highly personal ways".

Laura B. Fogle said...


Thanks for the comment!

I agree 100% that many people overdisclose on Facebook. I think of it as writing something on a highway billboard and think carefully about everything I post.

Skype is awesome! I used it for the first time this year and was amazed how well it worked! The quality of the video and audio are pretty good. I tried FaceTime too, Apple's proprietary IP phone application. It is basically the same as Skype but I had fewer connection problems.

wesleyjeanne said...

As you know I highly value online communications and I feel it has kept me connected with friends like you, as well as fostering new friendships. It's an interesting question, however, whether this largely surface communication is too impersonal to create meaningful relationships. I would agree that with the friendships I have on FB and Flickr and through my blog are rather impersonal. Those friendships I take the time to go deeper with (usually--but not always--the friendships I had before the time of FB and Flickr), involve face-to-face connections beyond the surface.

Recently I was listening to author Sherry Turkle being interviewed by Krista Tippett on the podcast of Tippett's show On Being. Turkle is an MIT Psychologist who has studied this very thing. She wrote a book called "Alone Together: Why We expect more from technology and less from each other." I have it on my to-read list.

One of the blurbs about the book says the following:
"Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything everywhere. We begin to feel overwhelmed and depleted by the lives technology makes possible. We may be free to work from anywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere. In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void,but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down."

Turkle (and others who have written about this) recommends digital sabbaticals and a balance of face-to-face communication, which is something I try to do.

Interestingly, Turkle noted in the interview that of the families and individuals she studied, it was the younger generation (current teens and twenties) who appeared to have a healthier view of technology than those of their parents (our) generation.

Great post and conversation starter.

wesleyjeanne said...

One more thing:

I do agree that the quality of online education varies. But I feel that online education can be a wonderful medium to bring students together. I find that online education opens up tremendous possibilities for many of my students with disabilities and students who live in rural areas (like mine), as well as students whose family circumstances make it difficult for them to be in a traditional classroom (as you've experienced).

As one who has taught both seat-based and online classes, I do much prefer seat-based so that I can have a more personal interaction with my students. However, I think that the level of personal interaction online is also dependent upon how I use the medium to create a closer, more personal classroom.

Laura B. Fogle said...

The idea that technology drains us and leaves us feeling overwhelmed and depleted certainly resonates with me! I am curious if there is a way to quantify that in psychological and/or physiological terms. I have read that looking at a screen is more tiring for our eyes than reading print because we blink less. Are there other quantitative factors like that? I know human babies are wired to respond to the human face. Do adults have a wired physical need to interact with a human face?

I understand what you are saying about FB and Flickr being surface connections, but they are like the water cooler conversations of the online world. I will never get to be close friends with the people I see in person if we never have conversations beyond weather, sports results and the like. I do think it is easier to stay at the "water cooler conversation" level on-line. Therefore the on-line classes tend to be less connected too.

Thanks for the insightful comments!

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