In the late nineties when so many of us were new to the Internet, it was like a gold mine. We could go out and search for little nuggets here and there, then pass them along to friends. There were a number of email services that provided the “Internet site of the day” or “The Ten Best Internet Sites” and so forth.. Those days ended, those emails stopped, and the search engines took over.
Today there are nearly 1 billion websites and despite the fact that quite a few are probably not operating or operating very rarely, the great majority appear to be operating very well. And instead of a few million or 20 million or 50 million of us on the Internet, now we have more than 3 billion “surfers”. But I digress.
In those early days of the Internet’s early growth, there was a lot of discussion as to whether the Internet was going to isolate people. The fear was that individuals would become so attached to surfing the net that they would give up normal interaction with other human beings. This was especially a concern for children and for people who were shy and really needed to get out and meet others, or so people said. They would end up just sitting for hours, attached to a glowing screen and detached from the real world.
I always thought that was ridiculous. I always saw the Internet as a fantastic playground, but also from the early days a great source of information of all kinds. In the process of using it I kept meeting people, reading their material, sometimes emailing them or “talking” in forums, and, over time, actually creating some pretty important friendships with people I had never set eyes on and indeed never would. I was not alone.
We started to hear stories of people with unusual diseases who found others who were also suffering the same and who now could share experiences, treatments they had heard about, the names of specialists, and so much more information than any one of them could have discovered on his or her own. Even more importantly, they met each other and became came friends. The Internet did not isolate them it actually broke through the walls of isolation that had surrounded them until there was an Internet.
It was far more than people with rare medical conditions. Everyone from lonely gay teenagers in small towns to amateur astronomers to practitioners of “small” sports, arts and other activities found others with a similar challenge or interest on a scale impossible before. I would never have had the opportunity to study kyudo, the Japanese art of archery, with a 20th generation samurai and Bowmaker and Archer to the Emperor of Japan if it had not been for the Internet! A ridiculous thought before the Internet,. Isolated? Hell no, it opened up a whole world of new friends and associates.
The same was true for so many other groups and individuals, although with very different interests. Now pedophiles could find each other, neo-Nazis could find each other, jihadis could find each other, and a host of other individuals and groups that most of us find objectionable. But that was and is the democracy of the Internet at work.
So it seems the subject is settled. The Internet does not foster isolation, quite the contrary. However, I’m beginning to think that that original issue is still valid today, but from a slightly different perspective.
Today we are not isolated as individuals on the Internet, as originally was feared, but we are often isolated as groups.
I communicate with a variety of people, usually North Americans and Europeans, but also from Latin America and Asia. A normal month means about 180 to 200 of these people, it can be more. I speak to them sometimes in small groups, meet with others face to face, and many more in correspondence. I have been doing this for years.
To a disturbing extent, I find that there are so many Internet sites now from a particular point of view that matches the individual’s current point of view that they don’t waste any of their time reading much of any other point of view. They don’t have the time to do that. What is available from their point of view sucks up all their time. And, of course, it’s so much more comforting to read what you want to believe from people who already agree with you.
You can argue the details, but be comforted that you and 50,000 or 500,000 or 5,000,000 others agree on all the important points. We, whoever “we” are, have so many members, we must be really impressive! I had one friend whose political group on the Net boasted 400,000 members from all over the world. “We’re huge! How can we be stopped?”, he asked. Well, I said, maybe by the other 2, 999,600,000 of us.
It often can be politics or religion or some other provocative topic that consumes the bulk of the Internet time of too many people I meet. Sometimes I am impressed with the depth of their research, but equally or more so with the narrowness of their research. Sometimes I am simply impressed with the narrowness of everything they say and read. Depth gets lost in the shuffle.
If it wasn’t so sad, it might be amusing how we have ended up using the Internet to replace the isolation of individuals with the isolation of groups.
We all can recognize isolated individuals and be concerned about them, but it’s difficult to think in terms of an isolated group on the Internet, where it seems as if isolation is all but impossible. It is not impossible. I am afraid it has simply become common, ordinary, unexceptional…and yes, sad.
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