One of the reasons I like investing in and writing about internet companies is a belief I’ve long held that social networks are a force for good. By facilitating open communication they allow us to maintain more and better relationships and make it harder for people (or brands) to manipulate their reputation or conceal the truth.
That belief has largely been an article of faith so I was delighted this morning to discover a Pew Internet survey which supported my viewpoint. 85% of respondents to their survey agreed with the statement that when looking back from 2020 they will “see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world”.
People in the ‘yes’ camp liked the way social networks and the internet help them to create and cultivate relationships. Apparently many of them were effusive in their praise and enthusiastic in their comments. Several (from a sample of 895) said they had met their spouse through the internet.
There is a positive and negative side to just about everything, and the same is true of social networking. Respondents raised concerns about the internet taking time away from important face to face relationships, whether web relationships are often only shallow, and the way the internet allows people to surround themselves with people who share a similar and sometimes extreme viewpoint, which can increase intolerance.
These are very real concerns, but in my opinion they are surmountable. My kids are too young to be thinking about spending every spare waking hour on Facebook, but when they get older I am expecting that helping them to learn to use the web in the right way and not lose sight of other important ways of building relationships will be one of my challenges Fiona and I face as parents. One of my neighbours is going through exactly that challenge at the moment with his teenage daughters and has recently taken the step of limiting their Facebook time to two hours per night. I imagine this will be the first step of many as they work to get the balance right between the conflicting calls on their time, including those that will yield immediate gratification and those where results take a little longer to show themselves – something we all have to do in many areas of life.
Just as children need to learn how to use new media, and get the balance right, so do adults who are coming to it for the first time. Understandably there is a lot of nervousness about the impact that these changes in the way we socialise will have on our lives, but over time new norms and etiquette will emerge and most people will get comfortable with social media just as they got comfortable with the telephone, the mobile phone and email.
If Pew Internet repeat their survey at that point I would expect the percentage of people agreeing that the internet had improved their social world would rise to something very near to 100%.