Internet essay from 1999

The following is an essay I wrote for a university course called “Professional English” in 1999. In 2001, it was published in an edition of The Autiser (the magazine of the Autism Association of South Australia).

The Internet has changed a lot since I wrote this, but despite its obvious datedness I think the essay is worth preserving. I’ve made some small (cringe-proofing) editorial alterations from the original, but not made any substantial changes. Comments are welcome if you’d like to discuss the Internet of today with reference to the topic of the essay.

Is the Internet Destructive to Human Relationships?

My original image of the Net was one of all these sad, lonely souls, sitting isolated at their computers … I now see it as the opposite, a means for people to reach out to each other.

— An Internet user

A human relationship consists of two or more people sharing their thoughts and experiences, hoping to learn about each other as human beings and form a meaningful community. Nothing is more integral to its development than communication, and the Internet is above all a medium for communication. For this reason, many people see the Net as a tool for developing and nurturing relationships with each other. Other people see a conflict between the forms of communication made possible on the Internet and the forms of communication that nurture human togetherness. Typically, Internet communication takes place over a long distance and there are no visual or audial stimuli particular to the individuals involved. By making it easier to go without these elements – it is claimed – the Internet harms our capacity to form community.

The Internet is also blamed for harming relationships outside itself. Families feel rejected because one member spends their time on the net rather than interacting with the rest of the household. This point of view is common, understandable and often valid. Many otherwise excellent pursuits become destructive by being too much of a good thing. The Internet sometimes acquires a disproportionate, and therefore harmful, place in a person’s life. Its usage involves very little expenditure of energy in proportion to what it offers, and the bright screen acts as a stimulus that encourages the user to continue almost indefinitely. Because the Internet is international, people are using it twenty-four hours a day, and there is never a point at which one has exhausted all possibility of communication. Yet no matter how real this addictive quality is, to label the Internet “harmful” is to miss the point. This article seeks to prove that the Internet can indeed nurture human togetherness, and if this is so, then a better question is not, “Is the Internet destructive”, but, “How can we find a balance between the Internet and other forms of communication, and reap the benefits of both?”.

Many people feel unable to relate adequately with the people around them, finding that their family and friends do not think on the same wavelength. These people often find on the Internet a place where they can feel at home. There is a potential for the traditional, geographic community to be neglected, but to blame the Internet is to mistake the symptom for the cause.

Of the services that the Internet offers, email is a communication medium for individuals, somewhat like a letter or fax but without any real paper being used, and the World Wide Web is an unlimited repository of information to which anyone can contribute. Individuals often create pages that describe their own lives, interests, and pursuits, and invitations for visitors to discuss topics of mutual interest are common. Because one begins with a certain knowledge of the people one meets, it is relatively easy to start a meaningful conversation with a stranger – something that is very much the exception anywhere else. Because there is no physical encounter, there is less of the apprehensive quality that surrounds traditional forms of interaction. Because a person has time to think carefully over their reply to an email, conversations are often more meaningful than the trivial discourses common in the real world. Far from being in conflict with the development of human relationships, the Internet overcomes many of the social barriers that prevent such interactions from happening in the first place.

A third, less publicised service, is that of newsgroups. Here, one submits lengthy, email like messages to a public forum and takes part in conversations called “threads”. Thousands of newsgroups exist, each of them dedicated to a particular field or interest group. Some exist primarily as a knowledge source. Others are the online equivalent of fan clubs, and many of these acquire a culture of their own. Most newsgroups have one or more associated documents called FAQs that define the theme and – if applicable – the culture of the group. It is a person’s willingness to fit in with the group’s expectations that determines whether they will be accepted into the community, and because these expectations are quite distinct from those of communities outside the Net, it is here that the socially wary often find a place where they can be themselves.

For example, (AFP) is a newsgroup for fans of the popular author Terry Pratchett. According to the opening paragraph of the index page to its FAQs:

Traditionally, has always been a newsgroup where discussions range wide and far. Unlike many other newsgroups, afp does not always insist on topical relevance. But like many other newsgroups, perhaps even more so, is not an anarchy, but a community, with a strong sense of history and culture, and a fair number of social rules and conventions. The diversity of the Pratchett newsgroups is reflected in the plethora of FAQs and supporting documents that have become available over the years — “accumulated lore”, indeed.

AFP’s community recognises that virtual (i.e. Internet) and physical interactions each have a place in the human endeavour. For this reason, it encourages people to organise “afpmeets” – opportunities for members to get together and meet physically. Invitations to such meets are posted on the group, as are reports for those who couldn’t make it. Sometimes, people travel across the world to meet individuals they have corresponded with online. More commonly, individuals will meet in a newsgroup, develop a sincere friendship by email, and soon begin talking to each other on the phone or arranging to meet in the flesh.

As part of the research process for this article, members of the AFP community were asked for their experiences of Internet-fostered relationships and communities. Selected responses follow:

  • In the last 19 months, I have been through the death of my mother, I have walked out on a very unhappy marriage, gotten a divorce and found a wonderful SO who I’m about to marry in two months’ time. I couldn’t have survived any of this without the continual support I had from afpers (mainly by IRC but also email). Two of my closest friends for almost all of this time were an American and a New Zealander. The former I managed to meet in real life a few months after we met on IRC but the latter I didn’t meet face-to-face with for over a year. But they, and many others, gave me the support and strength to change my life completely. I literally wouldn’t be the same person today if it wasn’t for them.
  • Before I started “meeting” people on the Net, I certainly never expected to do much travelling; the friendships I’ve made over the Net are the direct cause of my three trips to the UK, and a couple of trips to Canada.
  • After a couple of months, I realized I’d had more true communication, and been shown more affection, in daily email than I’d received in all three years I’d lived with my ex-husband. To me, that’s as real as it gets.

It is the vast array of testimonies, both of individuals and of groups, that deal the death blow to the view that true human togetherness cannot be fostered on the Internet. Far from being hostile to the formation of human relationships, community is the very essence of the Internet. Nowhere is it easier to seek people with similar interests to oneself, and human relationships – both personal and communial – on the Internet are as genuine as any in real life. Many people find they owe an enormous social debt to the people they met through their computer. It is true that competition can develop between Internet and traditional communities and that the latter can feel left out as a result, but the first step to solving this problem is to acknowledge the Internet not primarily as a destructive force, but as a constructive one.

— APM, 1999

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