Interesting Facts About The Internet and Social Networking
The correlation between social networks, the Internet, and ethics may be difficult to initially discern, however, their interdependency becomes obvious when examined in detail. This paper will explore the various social implications of the Internet, how the Internet redefined social networks, the devolution of face-to-face interactions, the unusual effects of emoticons, and the ethical implications of online interactions. The term ‘social network’ will be used as defined by Connected: The surprising power of social networks , which was explored in detail in the literature review. To reiterate, a social network is a social structure comprised of individuals that are connected through a relationship, whether that be friendship, common interest, financial exchange, family, sexual relationship, religious belief or any other form of interdependent relationship.
The Internet is an integral part of our society and, as such, there have been many scholarly articles dedicated to determining its effects on our social lives. The ethical implications become obvious when you consider how people interact with one another online. Facebook, online dating websites, MySpace, HubPages and chat rooms are all examples of places where people gather digitally to exchange information, develop relationships, make new friends or keep others updated. The authenticity of the information provided, however, is difficult to verify. People create whatever online persona they desire.
The Internet emerged in 1982, although a similar system was used since the 1960s for scientific and military needs. It didn’t become popular until the early 1990s when graphical interfaces were developed and companies found commercial uses for the Internet. In 1995, roughly 25 million American citizens had access to the Internet. By 1999, 83 million Americans were using the Internet, about 55 million daily. The World Wide Web had approximately 20,000 webpages in 1995, which increased to over 2 billion by 2000. (Internet Society, 2010)
The “Digital Divide” is the theory that predicted that the Internet would create widespread inequality throughout America. Specifically, it refers to inequalities in access to the Internet, extent of use, knowledge of search strategies, quality of technical assistance and social support, ability to evaluate the quality of information, and diversity of uses. A study conducted by the Department of Sociology at Princeton determined that although the Internet did create some inequalities, the majority was caused by relatively predictable reasons such as poverty, lack of education and disinterest with technological advances (DiMaggio, 2001).
The Princeton study only examined a period from 1995 to 2001, but it revealed that the Internet was growing at an exponential rate and appealed to a wide variety of people. In September of 2009, there were 1.73 billion Internet users - an 18% increase from the prior year (Internetworldstats.com). There is no need to delve further into the statistics; it should be obvious that our society is increasingly dependent on the Internet. The next step is to examine how the Internet has affected society and individual social networks.
In September of 2005, a bizarre thing happened. The creators of World of Warcraft, an online game that hosted approximately 2 million unique players at the time, decided to increase the difficulty of the end boss by giving it the ability to spread a contagious disease amongst the players that attacked it. They expected the players to continue battling until they either died, at which point they would safely reawaken at their ‘house’, or killed the boss. Unfortunately, some of the players decided to retreat, which caused a massive outbreak of a virtual illness across the World of Warcraft.
The unexpected result ended up revealing a lot about what would happen in a real-world epidemic. Some of the players would flea to the woods, others would altruistically attempt to heal their village companions, and a few were intent on spreading the disease to as many people as possible. Although the virtual disease was a glitch, many of the Warcraft fanatics thought it was a brilliant event due to its realistic contagion properties (Christakis & Fowler, 2009). In March 2007, Ran D Balicer, an epidemiologist physician, published an article relating the similarities between this outbreak and the SARS and Avian Influenza outbreaks. He suggested that role-playing games could be used to model real-life situations. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention contacted Blizzard, the game developer, to gather statistics of the event, but was informed that it was merely a glitch (Corrupted Blood incident, 2010).
Online gaming can provide some insight to the inner workings of social networks and the Internet, but what about systems designed to connect people? Friendster.com is a website devoted to expanding social networks. On July 7, 2006, they received a patent for their system:
Friendster, an online community that connects people through networks of friends, announced today that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has awarded a new U.S. Patent titled "A System, Method and Apparatus for Connecting Users in an Online Computer System Based on Their Relationships within Social Networks" (Number 7,069,308). The patent, which was awarded to Friendster and lists Jonathan Abrams as the inventor, outlines a system, method and apparatus for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks (Friendster, 2006).
The website’s initial concept was to connect people at four degrees of separation, which is one more than the golden “three degrees of separation” (the standard range of influence between people). This innovative concept, however, turned out to be the website’s demise. Once the website became popular, the many interconnected social networks bogged down the servers and diffused users’ personal social networks.
Facebook offered a solution to Friendster’s dilemma. Instead of connecting its users to such a massive selection of possible connections, Facebook limited its degree of separation to two. In other words, Facebook will only suggest friends of friends and not any further. Mutual friends are the key ingredients. The interesting thing about Facebook, as described in Connected, is that its users exhibit social behavior more closely related to offline activities than online. Members update their statuses, plan events and construct their dialogue to reflect what’s happening in the real world. To advocate this, Facebook is implementing more features that will boost connectivity between members.
In 1961, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram performed a famous experiment that was designed to examine a participant’s obedience to authoritative figures. To summarize, Milgram wanted to know how much physical harm a person would do to another human being in the presence of an authoritative figure. In 2006, a group of computer scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists repeated the same experiment, however, the female receiving the shock was virtual. They split the participants into two groups: one group would see and hear the results of the shock and the other group would only receive a text confirmation of the physical harm. In conclusion, the researchers found that the participants that could physical see and hear the virtual woman were about 80% more likely to stop administering shocks before the fatal level despite the fact that both groups knew that they weren’t actually interacting with another human (Slater M, 2006).
The research indicated a couple of things: (1) the participants that saw and heard the virtual woman responded as though they were dealing with a real human and (2) communication through text didn’t convey much of an emotional response in the participants. This leads to the final topic of this paper: emoticons. Emoticons are representations of emotional expressions formed by various character combinations. They are intended to convey the writer’s feeling or tone. As the speed of communication increased, the length and vocabulary of the messages decreased, which spawned the necessity of emoticons. Consider the following sentences:
I have to take a shower :-)
I have to take a shower :-(
I have to take a shower ;-)
The tone of the sentence changes from excitement to despair to flirtation with simple symbolism. One study found that, “emoticons are not only fun to use but may be beneficial because an increase in information richness is equivalent to an improvement in communication efficiency and effectiveness” (Haung et al, 2008, p. 470).
The Internet has provided the world with instant communication and access to information. Early skeptics of the Internet were under the assumption that our social interactions would become increasingly impersonal, however their claims are widely unsubstantiated. Their worries parallel those experienced by skeptics of the telephone who believed that the telephone would decentralize local communities, although evidence suggests the opposite. In regards to online deception, the statistics provide evidence of a relatively small portion of user to be deceitful. The majority of the interactions online are both personal and reflect behaviors exhibited in the real world. The Internet is still a young technology and it should be used with a considerable amount of caution, but instead of being a haven for ill intentions, it has simply become another medium for human communication.
Christakis N, Fowler J. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks. 1st Edition. Kindle.
Corrupted Blood incident. (2010, July 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Retrieved: August 2, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Corrupted_Blood_incident&oldid=374517083
Friendster. (2006, July). Press Releases. Retrieved: August 1, 2010 from http://www.friendster.com/info/presscenter.php?A=pr7
Huang, A., Yen, D., & Zhang, X. (2008, November). Exploring the potential effects of emoticons . Information & Management , 45 (7), 466-473. Retrieved July 20, 2010, from E-Journals database.
Internet Society. (2010). A Brief History of The Internet . Retrieved: August 1, 2010 from http://www.isoc.org/internet/history/brief.shtml#Community
Slater M, Antley A, Davison A, Swapp D, Guger C, et al. (2006) A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments . PLoS ONE 1(1): e39. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000039
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