The Web has often and, I think, justifiably been touted as a democratizing and empowering communications medium. But as with any communications phenomenon of this magnitude, there are bound to be some negative effects. I am not talking here about the threats to children or the ubiquity of online pornography. In more basic social and expressive terms, the manner in which people associate and communicate “online” may be producing certain deleterious effects with regard to such activities “offline.” Although there are likely others, I want to discuss two such potential negative effects.
The first possible negative effect relates to basic interpersonal skills and social networking. As some educators (the author included) are doubtless aware, students have a tendency to resort to email rather than make appointments for face-to-face meetings with instructors. Disembodied or “virtual” communication can of course be quite beneficial in terms of things like convenience and efficiency. But for students, emailing, texting, and participating in social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are not primarily related to convenience and efficiency; they are now the principal means of connecting to and communicating with others. What effect are these modes of online communication having on real space encounters and interactions? Consider a recent orientation seminar offered at New York University, entitled “Facebook in the Flesh.” As reported in the September 17 edition of The New Yorker, the seminar was apparently designed to teach students how to socialize and build social networks in person — social processes that a seminar brochure recognized could be very “intimidating” to students. At one point, participants were paired off and given instructions on how to do such elementary things as ask questions and discover commonalities and connections. Thus, one possible negative effect from online modes of expression is the difficulty, and in some cases even inability, to effectively interact with others located in the same physical space. This negative effect may have serious social and economic, as well as expressive, ramifications. (According to a recent survey, time spent at work has not decreased despite the availability of mobile technologies.)