"Hey, Lynn, I just read about this new device," I said to a therapist friend who'd come for dinner. "Imagine watching the Olympics or some other big event," I explained while slicing tomatoes for our salad, "but instead of an old-fashioned remote, you have this gizmo that lets you tell the producer what you want to see, search for information about whatever's on the screen, and talk to other viewers around the world. It'd be like watching TV, Googling, and tweeting all at once. "
When I looked up from the chopping board, Lynn was hunched over, hands covering her ears, eyes shut. "Stop!" she begged. "I can't take any more."
Lynn's no Luddite—she's been e-mailing since the late '90s. She has a computer and broadband, and spends time on the Internet searching, reading, making purchases, meeting people through dating sites. After a bad breakup, she spent a few months chatting in an online support group. Last year, out of curiosity, she reluctantly joined Facebook. And to shore up her practice, she began working with a designer to create her own website. Having an Internet presence has already resulted in new clients, but she still feels overwhelmed, if not a little bit intimidated, by this new digital landscape, constantly shifting under her feet. "I have this feeling that I've been left behind, and I'll never catch up."
Who can blame her? Ten years ago—light-years in Internet time—a "hot spot" was a trendy nightclub, criminals had "profiles," text was a noun, and the word blog didn't exist. In 2000, a mere 46 percent of Americans were online (mostly by dial-up), compared with 80 percent today (mostly by broadband). No one connected wirelessly back then. Today 6 in 10 of us do, a 55 percent increase since 2009. Back then, only half of us had mobile phones; now 85 percent do. Social media sites, such as MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn, didn't exist a decade ago. No one walked around with netbooks, Kindles, Blackberrys, or iPhones; no one Skyped or Tweeted or used Foursquare to let their networks know where they were. Indeed, the convergence of social software, high-speed broadband, and science-fictionesque mobile devices has been accelerating change at such a dizzying pace that researchers already see a generation gap between kids born in the 1980s and those born 10 years later.
I joined Facebook in 2006, only because I had to. I was beginning to research a book about connections beyond our intimate circles. I set out to explore why we now spend more time interacting with these "consequential strangers"—acquaintances—than with our loved ones. In part, the answer was the pull of social media—Internet sites that beckon us to mix and mingle. That year, in fact, Time magazine put a mirror on its cover to indicate its choice for Person of the Year: You. The editors declared it, "a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before."
That prophecy has come true—and is continuing to unfold in ways that exceed the wildest predictions of even a few years ago. The power to share has already turned once-solitary activities into social occasions. Last year, while watching the Oscars, I dished fashion with people halfway around the world. Kindle readers can see which passages other readers highlight. In an instant, you can tap into debates about the Gulf oil spill or eavesdrop on Tea Party conversations.
Want to meet others who have a passion for saki? Talk to a mother who has postpartum depression? Do good works in exchange for a Lady Gaga ticket? Let someone know that you're in a coffee shop in Atlanta? Keep track of your running times with thousands of other Nike-wearers? Send a message to the President? To borrow from the familiar iPhone ad, there's an app for that. Today our everyday existence is so seamlessly entwined with the Internet that we now take it for granted. As media theorist Doug Rushkoff, author of Life, Inc., puts it, "The Internet has changed from a thing one does to a way one lives."
The Internet has become the world's largest, and arguably most important, social thoroughfare. It intersects with millions—no, billions—of streets, alleyways, and self-contained villages where you can find, meet, and work with just about anyone on the planet. It's a marketplace for exchange—of things, of services, of thoughts—a place where you can mobilize "smart mobs" or plan "meetups," where you can "crowd source" ideas or join others on the "creative commons." Every day we have tens, if not hundreds, of brief interchanges—by e-mail or Skype, by instant messages and posts. We poke and we lurk; we bear witness to many lives and mourn deaths together. In short, we're always "talking" to someone and can now recruit more people into our lives than ever before in history.