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An Unsocial Network?

Questions arise about the Internet and the art of communication

Dec. 15, 2010
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New advances in technology always affect the content and style of our communications. The printing press allowed for the mass production and distribution of ideas. The telephone, radio and, later, television created new avenues through which to beam words and images across great distances. With the advent of the Internet, communication has continued to evolve. A simple keystroke is all it takes to correspond with another person—whether they are down the hall or halfway around the globe. But with each advance in technology comes the question of whether or not it helps or hampers our way of communicating with one another.

Within the greater context of the Internet, social media sites have forged new ways to touch base with friends, family and strangers. Tweets and wall posts have been added to—or in some cases have replaced—handwritten letters, e-mails, water-cooler chitchat, phone calls and a host of other modes of communication. In the cyber-community we share gossip, interests, photographs and announcements. We do this in face-to-face contact too, but now we have the option of spreading ideas under more anonymous shadows. We can more readily create and maintain an identity, and sometimes multiple identities, based on how we want to be perceived by an online audience.

The impact of social media sites has extended to the academic world as well. Studies from Northwestern University have shown that social networking sites don’t adversely affect the academic standing of students who use the sites. In fact, part of the early appeal of Facebook was the ability to share notes and become familiar with classmates. Another finding suggests that students who spend more time online are more capable of using the Internet to aid in their schoolwork. It has even been argued that social media has helped children become more literate.

However immense the positives of these technologies, however, there are some people who question whether tweets, posts and other new forms of correspondence may be diluting the art of communication. Will the inundation of data and information overload our minds? Will the abbreviations that have gained popularity through instant messaging hurt our ability to think and communicate in complete thoughts and sentences? Would Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters convey the same meaning as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Tweets?

Among those who fear that online communication could lessen our ability to interact in the brick-and-mortar world is neuroscientist Susan Adele Greenfield. She says that social networking sites risk infantilizing the mid-21st-century mind, leaving it “characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity."

The debate continues: Is the latest wave of technology hindering our ability to communicate, or is that notion worthy of little more than an LOL?


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