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Frontier Of The Unspoken: How the Internet Changed the Way We Socialize

By C. Robert Dimitri | Think Pieces | March 1, 2011 |

By C. Robert Dimitri | Think Pieces | March 1, 2011 |

I think about the Internet.

I think about it a lot.

Just before I graduated from high school, I was still writing my English papers on an Apple IIE. Some of my more tech-savvy friends owned snazzier computers and were already making use of those wondrous instruments called “modems,” and I remember being intrigued by television advertising for the online service Prodigy. Computerized connectivity, however, remained largely unexplored by me (and the vast majority of America) at that point.

Four years later as my university days were coming to an end, my Internet wanderings had increased exponentially. I can barely fathom how so much information appeared so quickly in those interceding four years, but suddenly it was all at our fingertips. A graduation gift of a laptop computer plunged me into a whole new world of late night chat rooms, efficient employment searches all over the country, a forum for endless movie chatter, and the mechanism for my still ongoing fantasy football addiction. Since that time, my default waking position has become to sit at a keyboard and access a network. (If people were to read this piece one hundred years from now about this transformative time in our society, I can imagine what is destined to become an obligatory question in response to that sentence: “What’s a keyboard?”)

It seems such a critical shift in our cultural paradigm that I daresay its significance is worth a demarcation similar to B.C. and A.D.; historians one day could easily refer to these last fifteen years of humanity as the beginning of the end for global isolationism and a fundamental alteration in all that followed. The globe has been fully mapped for a while, but it is only recently that so many people can instantaneously access so much of it.

Nothing has frustrated me more about adulthood than the nature of friendship. So many of my best friendships were built upon shooting hoops in the driveway as a kid, sharing bus rides to an out-of-town academic or athletic meet, bonding over shared homework assignments, or simply lounging in a dorm room at a time when we had nothing but possibilities. Time and distance do not destroy those relationships, but they do make them much less an active force in our everyday lives. As weekly calls turn into monthly calls, and once-per-month calls dwindle to once-per-year, I have begrudged mere circumstance for trampling on any personal resolve I might have to the contrary and diminishing what was most important to me.

And what replaces those friendships? Yes, we gravitated toward particular people with shared interests, but once you look past that factor, those connections were borne of nothing more complex than time spent together and shared adversity. In carefree youth or an academic environment that sort of time spent together is easy to find; in adulthood it is much more of a luxury.

Or is it? Enter the Internet.

Admittedly, I am something of an anti-social introvert, so perhaps I am an outlier, but since those university days I can say with confidence that at least 90 percent of the friendships that I have made spawned not in a face-to-face meeting but rather in a faceless exchange of bits, bytes, and electrical signals. (I do not use the word “friendship” lightly either; for example, merely “friending” someone on Facebook does not count, although that is how a few of them started.) It is also worth noting that my two lengthiest adult romantic relationships saw their genesis on said Internet.

A few days ago I watched the HBO documentary When Strangers Click, a series of five vignettes about Internet romance. It cited a startling statistic: 22 percent of current heterosexual couples met online. A characteristic that once marked me as unusual has become mainstream. Granted, I expect many of those couples met via online matching services or entered into that specific online interaction with an agenda that would have hastened the initial “real life” meeting, which is not quite the same procedure as I might imagine in my Internet ideal of getting to know someone, but it is still notable.

As my Internet presence grew, that missing time upon which my old friendships had depended became much less of an issue. I was not required to awkwardly try to manufacture a new friendship out of some “real life” interaction that I had in passing with someone who lived halfway across town. That daily accessibility of the shared class schedule, the dorm life, the best friend that lived around the block, or perhaps most critically finding that time two people can share a phone call was not so difficult to attain with this new medium. In a few cases old friendships were even revived. I am such a convert that I have found myself resenting the fact that some loved ones refuse to join Facebook. It seems inevitable that Facebook’s heyday will fade to be replaced by some successor, but for now in my mind it is as ubiquitous and convenient as the telephone and far more versatile.

The very nature of interaction on the Internet has changed the way that I interact with people, most notably with regard to preconceptions and prejudices. I became enamored with this idea of becoming familiar with people based solely on their words and thoughts. Could there be a more fair way to get to know someone? Wouldn’t this be the “real” person?

Of course, I did quickly realize that this world has its own share of facades. Back in the early days of the Internet when I was in my blogging phase and the veil of anonymity was much more easily maintained, there seemed to be two major types of people: those who used the Internet as a refuge for brazen honesty and confession that could be deemed unseemly in person, and those who used it to be anyone but themselves. I had much more interest in the former group, the category into which I fell (perhaps to a fault).

My thoughts about the Internet are much larger in scope than my personal need for social interaction and friends, though, even as that same truth I sought plays an important role in the much larger picture of the globalization of ideas. As protest, violence, and revolution sweep across countries of the Middle East, we have seen that Internet communication can galvanize these movements. In a place where the wrong word spoken aloud can bring the harshest of consequences, it could be the unspoken typed word that assures a frightened person that he or she is not alone. Oppressive regimes have restricted networks to block the outside world and stymie protesters in coordinating their like minds, and bloggers have been jailed for simply expressing themselves. The news has given me the facts and certain films have shown me the feelings of environments such as these, but the luxury of free speech and open thought that we have in this country still leaves these despotic environments almost beyond my imagination.

I think about Internet arguments of my own over the years; I have had my share, and many of them have been distorted by the miscommunication of tone and context that can accompany the hastily written word. This is all confounded by my own tendency to dig in my heels and fume. Nevertheless, perhaps it is easier to resolve conflicts and sway fundamental opinions when someone is afforded the opportunity to do so without the extra difficulty of admitting wrongness in a face-to-face conversation. Whether or not a specific argument is carried to fruition, I have found it easier to detach an Internet handle from the words it accompanies. With no tangible person from a particular “side” to assign any predisposed opposition, a well-worded statement can be more difficult to dismiss. I ruminate over the thoughts and evaluate their value without prejudice. Then only after I realize what a stubborn idiot I have been, I am able to reattach those words to a human being.

Perhaps this can translate to that larger social change too. The happenings in the Middle East are humbling and sobering, and it feels like an injustice for me to try to bridge my own trivial Internet interactions with the death in the name of freedom that is ongoing even as I type this. Yet I find it a staggering proposition that we could be on the brink of the most significant event in world history in our lives, and it might not be owed to guns, political policies, or forcefully installed governments, but rather the simple ability to communicate and empathize like never before. I am reminded of an old joke about the sad seeming impossibility of peace in the Middle East as ever being attainable, and I wonder if we dare think of a time in our near future when that joke is no longer applicable.

I am generally not an optimistic person, but this Internet and all that it can do for the way that we relate to one another gives me hope. A century ago it might have been easy to go an entire lifetime without thinking about someone in the next town over; now if you want to read the innermost thoughts of someone halfway around the world in a foreign land, they are yours to find. At the climax of the Cold War twenty-five years ago, Sting’s The Dream Of The Blue Turtles hoped for peace as he wondered whether the Russians love their children too. Love for children is no guarantee in solving the world’s conflicts, but it is a much more easily verifiable reassurance these days.

I have this mental image of two boulders rolling down a hill, accumulating volume as they go, like Katamari Damacy balls tumbling to the bottom. One is the accrued global empathy generated by the Internet that could lead to a much more peaceful world. The other feeds on all the old prejudices that result from silence and isolation; the worst of what it wreaks is the most hateful rhetoric, mass homicide, and nuclear destruction. The former is behind at the moment, but it is smaller, newer, and gaining. The latter does not pick up mass as easily since that other one came into existence and even seems to lose pieces of itself, but it has been moving at an inexorable pace for millennia. Which will reach critical mass first in this race?

Our generation does not have mysterious new physical lands to explore like those that came before us, and most of us will not be alive long enough to venture beyond this planet. In spite of that, this electronic frontier of thought, interaction, and self-reflection that is the Internet is no less exciting, no less important, and no less groundbreaking for the progress of humanity.

C. Robert Dimitri is grateful for the Internet and hopes that we can all get along.

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