How the Internet is Changing the Way We Create Connection

Steering the Way We Form Relationships in the Digital Age

Melinda Blau

"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."

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.

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.

Welcome to the Relationship Revolution---a radical shift in the way we view ourselves and our social ties. The Internet creates "ambient intimacy," which London-based tech designer Leisa Reichelt defines as "being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn't usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible." As a result, we're awash in relationships. There's always someone we can turn to for advice, information, solace, validation, a good laugh, a thought-provoking suggestion---and there's always someone listening.

The problem is, many of us feel as Lynn does—slightly out of synch---even as we commit increasing stretches of our time to the Internet. We watch as our businesses and professions change because of it. We wonder what new kinds of enterprises will spring from it---and what effect it will have on our hearts and minds. In the face of such cyclonic change, it's tempting, and perhaps comforting, to close our eyes and cover our ears, to dismiss it all as fad or meaningless clutter and distraction, or to portray blogging and other "public displays of connection" as narcissistic me-fests. We hear often enough that we're seduced and addicted, that we risk disappearing into our screens, that it's frying our brains. Critics liken the Internet to a big focus group in the sky, where our preferences and tastes are out there, ripe for the picking.

So if you think you aren't affected, either because it's all too space-agey, too complicated, too scary, or you're just not interested, think again. Your kids, your parents, your friends, your clients, your long-lost cousins, and citizens around the world are already swimming in the digital stream. You can't stop the river. Even if you never join Facebook, never read an online newspaper, or never send another e-mail, the Internet---the steam engine of digital technology---will continue to affect you.

How? The answer is different for each of us, but playing nicely in the sandbox of cyberspace is inspiring more and more people to share and cooperate, and by all indications, this mentality is extending into other arenas of life and changing our attitudes toward one another.

"The Great Either/Or of History"

There are caveats of course---and reason to be skeptical. The online universe is like a big city: anyone can live and lurk there---charlatans and crazies, predators and malicious "trolls" who verbally torture other users, hackers and hoax-meisters, conspiracy theorists and bigots peddling messages of hate and division. Acknowledging these "toxic raiders"---dark forces that have been with us since the dawn of history---Jean Houston characterizes this time as "the great Either/Or of history"---a period that will determine whether we can harness the Internet's vast potential to make dramatic changes benefitting millions of people, or simply extend the self-absorbed consumerism that dominates so much of the culture.

But we can't leave it to chance, says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "It's not enough to make the personal decision that you want a wider world," nor will the Internet necessarily become a force to smooth out cultural differences. "We have to figure out how to rewire the systems that we have in place. We have to fix the media, we have to fix the Internet, we have to fix education, we have to fix our immigration policies."

Even more important, says Howard Rheingold, who now teaches Digital Journalism at Stanford University and Virtual Community and Social Media at the University of California, Berkeley, we must take responsibility for educating ourselves. Being part of a "smart mob" doesn't guarantee that you're a responsible participant or collaborator. Accumulating friends on Facebook doesn't mean that you necessarily understand how to get the most out of your network, know how to deploy attention productively, or are capable of "crap detection." A lot is riding on how we collectively develop our relationship with the Internet. As Rheingold puts it, "the humanity or toxicity of next year's digital culture depends to a very large degree on what we know, learn, and teach each other."

This blog is excerpted from “The Relationship Revolution." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Tags: ethical issues | intimacy | kids | parents | psychotherapy | relationships | talking | technology | therapist | therapy | internet | networker | love | social media | connectivity | Facebook | Twitter | online | Ethan Zuckerman | Howard Rheingold

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