Why we should fully embrace the internet

Remember a few years back when naysayers were warning the
internet would make us alienated and isolated, and maybe it would destroy our
family and social life? The highly
respected Pew Internet & American Life Project has just released a report
titled "The Strength of Internet Ties" finding that those worries were unfounded. I think this report is so
significant I’m going to quote from the report’s summary extensively. It is
available free here.

Instead of disappearing, people’s communities are
transforming: The traditional human orientation to neighborhood- and
village-based groups is moving towards communities that are oriented around
geographically dispersed social networks. People communicate and maneuver in
these networks rather than being bound up in one solitary community. Yet
people’s networks continue to have substantial numbers of relatives and
neighbors — the traditional bases of community — as well as friends and

Rather than conflicting with people’s community ties, we
find that the internet fits seamlessly with in-person and phone encounters.
With the help of the internet, people are able to maintain active contact with
sizable social networks, even though many of the people in those networks do
not live nearby. Moreover, there is media multiplexity: The more that people
see each other in person and talk on the phone, the more they use the internet.
The connectedness that the internet and other media foster within social
networks has real payoffs: People use the internet to seek out others in their
networks of contacts when they need help.


…the internet and the cell phone have transformed
communication from house-to-house to person-to- person. This creates a new
basis for community that author Barry Wellman has called “networked
individualism”: Rather than relying on a single community for social capital,
individuals often must actively seek out a variety of appropriate people and
resources for different situations.

In a social environment based on networked individualism,
the internet’s capacity to help maintain and cultivate social networks has real
payoffs. Our work shows that internet use provides online Americans a path to
resources, such as access to people who may have the right information to help
deal with a health or medical issue or to confront a financial issue. Sometimes
this assistance comes from a close friend or family member. Sometimes this
assistance comes from a person more socially distant, but made close by email
in a time of need. The result is that people not only socialize online, but
they also incorporate the internet into seeking information, exchanging advice,
and making decisions.

The internet has fostered transformation in
community from densely knit villages and neighborhoods to more sparsely knit
social networks. Because individuals — rather than households — are separately
connected, the internet and the cell phone have transformed communication from
house to house to person to person. There is “networked individualism”: Rather
than relying on a single community for social capital, individuals often must
actively seek out a variety of appropriate people and resources for different


Here’s the study’s key findings:

  • The internet supports social networks.
  • Email is more capable than in-person or phone communication
    of facilitating regular contact with large networks.
  • Email is a tool of “glocalization.” It connects distant
    friends and relatives, yet it also connects those who live nearby.
  • Email does not seduce people away from in-person and phone
  • People use the internet to put their social networks into
    motion when they need help with important issues in their lives.
  • The internet’s role is important in explaining the greater
    likelihood of online users getting help as compared to non-users.
  • Americans’ use of a range of information technologies
    smooths their paths to getting help.
  • Those with many significant ties and access to people with a
    variety of different occupations are more likely to get help from their
  • Internet users have somewhat larger social networks than
  • About 60 million Americans say the internet has played an
    important or crucial role in helping them deal with at least one major life
    decision in the past two years.
  • The number of Americans relying on the internet for major
    life decisions has increased by one-third since 2002.
  • At major moments, some people say the internet helps them
    connect with other people and experts who help them make choices. Others say
    that the web helps them get information and compare options as they face

What’s this mean? Well, to me it means the Society should put a high priority on developing strategies to make full use of the internet to engage people around our mission. We need to go well beyond what we have in place now. We should shift resources into making internet-based strategies robust.

One comment

  1. Absolutely. From another angle, more support of this venture from The January issue of Managed Care Magazine. The article is What Doctors Don’t Know About the New Plan Designs. In discussing a consumer driven health care market that will include increasing transparency to enable intelligent decisions, the author states “Those without access to a computer or lacking in computer skills will be left in the cold, because information is nearly always provided via the Internet.” Our promotion and implementation of internet technology is part of our role of patient advocate.

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