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Participation in the WELL wasn't unlike what we see today: a mixed bag of conversation, arguments, information-sharing, and support. No one could upload images or sounds back then, but it was a heady experience nonetheless. "Finding the WELL was like discovering a cozy little world that had been flourishing without me, hidden within the walls of my house," wrote journalist and educator Howard Rheingold in his 1993 book, Virtual Communities. "An entire cast of characters welcomed me to the troupe with great merriment as soon as I found the secret door."
By the late '90s, those who were paying attention perceived the Internet as former CEO of Intel Andrew Grove did: "a 20-foot tidal wave coming, and we are all in kayaks." But the truth is, smaller waves of modernization had begun to change society's course long before. Instead of living in communities, like small villages and neighborhoods, each of us was embedded in his or her own "personal community"—a collection of local and far-flung others who met specific needs. Sociologist Barry Wellman stresses that the Internet didn't cause this shift to "networked individualism," as he calls it, but it has "reinforced, facilitated, and certainly increased the trend." With digital devices that allow 24/7 access, he adds, "we now have a lot of power at our fingertips." Like snails, we can carry our worldly connections with us, blurring the lines between private and public, leisure and work, family and career.
Early fears that we'd become a nation of loners, depressed, alienated, and zonked out in front of our computers haven't been substantiated. In 2009, a Pew Research Center survey found that people who have Internet access and/ or a mobile phone are likelier to have bigger, more diverse "discussion networks" than people who lack these connections. Some 40 percent of adult users are also "content producers," who shoot photos, and produce videos and music for their own and others' enjoyment, says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and coauthor, with Barry Wellman, of the upcoming Networked: The New Social Operating System. Through this "creation of personal media," Rainie says, Internet users form "just-in-time-just-like-me support groups" that expand and further their personal networks.
Most of our online connections are people we know, or once knew. We meet them in cyberspace and IRL—in real life. Unlike typical online communities of the '90s, many Web 2.0 venues specifically encourage offline encounters. At Meetup.com, for example, you plug in your zip code to find other salsa dancers who live near you. Before you know it, you're out with them on a Friday night, hoofing it up to Tito Puente. This is exactly what cofounder Scott Heiferman had in mind in 2002 when he launched the site. "I was shocked that, after 9/11, New York was like one big community, and I remember how good that felt." Why couldn't the Internet be used to harness a similar feeling? Heiferman asked himself.
Indeed, it has. "We went from the page metaphor to the realm of conversation," observes Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which suggests that the uber-connected brain isn't as comfortable with deep thought and sustained periods of concentration as the literary brain. "That's not to take away from the benefits and energy that come out of being connected," says Carr, who's more sanguine about the social ramifications of the Internet. "I do think that leads to certain kinds of innovation. As people are connected to these constant-messaging streams, there are distractions and interruptions, but on the other hand, more connections and free-flowing ideas."
The concern that technology will put us at risk—or that somehow we'll never adapt—is a recurrent theme throughout the history of invention, says Cathy Davidson, professor in interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. "People probably said that about the wheel," she writes in her new book, Now You See It: How the Science of Attention Will Revolutionize our Classrooms, the Workplace, and Everywhere Else. "Basically, the Internet is still in adolescence and so are we as users." Chances are, we won't be here long. One widely reported study, conducted by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Gary Small at UCLA, showed that when "Net Naive" people who had little online experience did a Google search, their brains were less active than those of the "Net Savvy." But thanks to the brain's plasticity, after only five days of practice, not only did the newbies become more efficient searchers, but MRI readings showed that their brains had already begun to develop new neural pathways in areas that were formerly underutilized.
As we segue from an Industrial Age "silo" model, which prized self-sufficiency and separation, Davidson says, the Internet brain will serve us well. "In our private lives in the last decade, we've gone through enormous change that has affected everything, from the way we do business to how we view intelligence and attention," says Davidson. "We have to rethink it all in a more interactive, networked, and collaborative way."