Archive for Wednesday, March 14, 2007

In online world, is ‘real’ human interaction lost?

March 14, 2007

In Tonganoxie, there's usually a customer or two hanging out at Shilling's electric-supply shop.

"It's kind of a coffee shop without the coffee shop," owner Phyllis Shilling said. "I've got a couple in here now solving the world issues."

That daily stream of visitors stands in contrast to the world of online communication through Internet communities such as MySpace and Facebook. Instead of chatting eye-to-eye, members swap text messages, post pictures of themselves, and update their profiles -- age, dating status, favorite TV shows and music -- for the world to see.

"I just can't quite see the benefit of just having all these photos when you've got a real person probably within a half-mile of you," Shilling said. "Why not just go and visit or call on the phone and have a voice-to-voice conversation?"

No substitute

The explosion in recent years in the number of blogs and social-networking sites raises the question: is face-to-face communication, of the kind that happens around Shilling's shop, being threatened? Experts say the answer is "no" -- that despite how it feels at times, Internet communication isn't becoming a substitute for human interaction.

"It's not just the Internet. People said that about the telephone, too," said Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at Kansas University. "One of the main things we did with the telephone was arrange face-to-face get-togethers, and you see exactly the same thing going on with the Internet."

KU freshman Meaghan O'Malley uses Facebook to keep track of her friends' latest social developments, make plans for the weekend, post pictures of herself with friends, and stay in touch with people who live out of state. She uses her phone primarily to send text messages and rarely places a call unless it's urgent.

When she went through a breakup recently, one of her first moves was to change her "status" to single. When she was going through sorority recruitment, she made a special effort to keep offensive material off her page.

She estimates she spends about two hours a day on the site.

"It takes away from studying, but it doesn't take away from being with my friends one-on-one," she said.


According to data from a 2004-2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, teenagers report that they spend about 10 hours each week interacting face-to-face with friends out of school, compared with 7.5 to 8 hours a week communicating online.

Pew researcher Amanda Lenhart said it's not safe to assume that the time people spend online detracts from the time they'd be having face-to-face interactions.

"It's not clear what's being exchanged. Some research I've seen suggests that it's taking away from television time," she said. "In the past, I think teens would have spent hours and hours on the phone. ... They're now taking that onto an online environment."

After all, there are plenty of examples of places where old-fashioned human interaction still takes place. In McLouth, there's the barbershop that Olin Dalaba has run for the past 49 years.

"We talk about the weather, politics, sports or anything there is," Dalaba said. "I have a few guys that come in and loaf with me."

For Mary Olive Thompson, who coordinates the weekly Wednesdays at Liberty Hall after-school event for Lawrence middle-school students, MySpace has become a promotional tool to let people know about what bands are playing at the event each week. She said students in the crowd are constantly in touch with their friends, often through text messaging on their cell phones.

If there's been a decline in social interaction in the years he's been living in McLouth, Dalaba blames it on TV more than anything.

"I don't think families get together and visit much anymore because I think television did away with that," he said. "We don't have the company over like we used to."

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