Facebook, Twitter, Web Enrich Social Lives, Says Pew

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-07-06

Much has been penned about how Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networking tools hinder and help productivity in the enterprise.

Some users spend too much time on these Websites; others leverage them for sales and networking opportunities that boost the corporate bottom line. But what about the impact of social software and the Internet at large on users' social lives?

It's actually quite fine, according to new research from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center. Pew and Elon found that 85 percent of 895 "technology stakeholders" and pundits agreed with the premise:

"In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the Internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future."

Social benefits of Internet use will far outstrip the negatives over the next decade because e-mail, social networks and other Web services offer low-friction ways to forge and rediscover social ties that make a difference in people's lives.

While this may smack of new-age truism, the Web can lower the communications constraints of cost, geography and time while allowing people to share tremendous amounts of data.

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are free, as are Google's many socially infused applications, such as Google Docs, YouTube, Google Buzz and Google Latitude.

Google and Yahoo proved that such Internet companies can pair content and services with online advertising to offer their services gratis for users.

In short, the barrier to entry is low while the personal satisfaction derived from using the Web services is high. If this wasn't the case, people wouldn't go there.

Case in point: MySpace. Once the largest social network in the world, the Website has lost relevance while Facebook's membership has soared to 500 million users.

Of course, there are cons to the many pros. Obvious arguments against social tools are that spending too much time on the Web decreases the number of face-to-face relationships, stymies exposure to new ideas (the walled garden within the network idea) and threatens to erode privacy.

To reach their conclusions, Pew and Elon didn't just pick people off of the street. The think tanks recruited through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter Internet culture experts and authors Clay Shirky, Esther Dyson, Nicholas Carr and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, among other luminaries in the high-tech industry.

Newmark noted: "The Net is about people connecting online, for commerce, politics and personally, and we already see that enhances real-life relationships. Location-based social networking, in particular, will be a big part of our lives."

"There's no escaping people anymore, and I believe that will yield better relationships," said Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?" and associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism.

Moreover, many of these thought leaders said they expect technological advances to continue to change social relations online.

For example, experts believe holographic displays, secure and trusted quantum/biometric security, collaborative visualization tools, unlimited cloud storage, open networks fueled by semantic Web tools, and instant thought transmission in a telepathic format are on tap.

The latter technology sounds like something out of the "X-Files," but it gives one an idea of what people envision for the intersection of where social meets Web.

Ultimately, what this means is that when Facebook and other Internet companies get called to the carpet in front of Congress over transgressions against consumer privacy, they will have some ammunition to argue for the benefits of social networking and related Web services.  

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