Networking in an Online World

Advantages, Problems, and the Need for Silence

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, AUG. 24, 2012 (Zenit.org).- One of the latest contributions to the debate over the pros and cons of the Internet and social networking sites is the book “Networked: The New Social Operation System.”

Authors Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman are respectively the director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, and a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.

Many people are concerned about the effects of the Internet on society, the authors acknowledged. In their opinion, however, it does not have an isolating effect. People are interacting with others, by using these new technologies.

Even before the Internet major social changes were taking place, they explained. The construction of the highway system in the decades following World War II, the shift away from institutions and organizations to a more independent life, and a more fragmented culture were only some of the changes.

With the Internet, mobile phones and social networking these changes have accelerated. The nature of interaction has changed. Instead of smaller, tighter, networks there is now a tendency toward looser and more fragmented networks.

The Internet facilitates more potential relationships, but it is also harder to sustain them because of the many distractions and interactions in our lives, they admitted.

Nevertheless, one study showed that increased Internet contact did not diminish the level of contact in person. People use the Internet and mobile phones to keep in touch and to organize to meet each other.

Mobile phones make it easier for parents to keep in touch with their children. It also, however, enables children to keep both emotional and physical distance from their parents. Teens, the authors noted, often use text messaging when they have to break bad news to their parents.

The Internet has allowed people not only to be more networked but it has also allowed them to become more assertive as individuals, according to the authors. Surveys have shown that not only do people say the Internet has helped them to learn new things and improve their connection with others, but that it has also improved their connections with members of their own family.

Phones

The impact of mobile phones was the subject of one of the book’s chapters. A 2011 survey showed that in the United States the average teen sends and receives about 50 text messages a day. Teens prefer texting, the authors explained, because they can do it privately and even while in class or with friends.

It’s not just rich countries. By 2011 more than three-quarters of the world’s mobile phones were in less-developed countries. China alone had 879 million subscribers.

Social media, the book noted, played a significant role in the 2011 Arab spring protests and helped opponents of the ruling regimes to coordinate their actions build networks. People used mobile phones to learn what was happening, and to share their own experiences with others.

Thus, smartphones and wireless have accelerated the trend to mobility and independence. A large number of people are almost always online. What the authors termed this “Internet-first frame of mind” means that social networks are easily accessible and one survey found that 84% of teens take their phone to bed with them so they are aware of messages and updates during the night.

Giving someone your address nowadays often means giving an e-mail and mobile number, rather than a street address.

The independence lies in being able to tailor interactions and the increased opportunities about where, and with whom, to connect.

Once in the workplace, however, the ability to always be connected can lead to problems in maintaining a healthy work/life balance the book explained.  There is pressure to stay connected as people fear of missing out on something.

One survey showed that 60% of employed Americans do some work from home and many people check their work e-mails on weekends or during holidays.

Increasingly it is possible to work from home, but those who do so may find themselves isolated due to the lack of fact-to-face contact with colleagues.

Silence

The danger of information overload was highlighted in Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the 2012 World Communications Day. It was centered around the theme of silence, at first a seemingly curious choice.

Both silence and word are needed to ensure genuine dialog between people. Silence creates a space for mutual listening, the pope explained, thus enabling deeper relationships. We also require silent reflection if we are to have the opportunity to reflect on the fundamental questions of our human existence, the pope added.

“Word and silence: learning to communicate is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak,” Pope Benedict concluded. Good advice as the opportunities to interact with others continue to multiply.