One of the central tenets of internet criticism – like the criticism of any mass media – is that it reduces social interaction. While any visit to a Facebook feed filled with extroverts would seem to deny this, most studies show people spending more and more people in front of a screen at the expense of spending it front of other people. Hold on a second, says Pew, which concludes that social isolation caused by new technologies and media is not the problem we’ve be led to believe. Pew’s report is in response to an influential 2006 paper claiming that “since 1985 Americans have become more socially isolated, the size of their discussion networks has declined, and the diversity of those people with whom they discuss important matters has decreased.”
Firstly, social isolation in America hasn’t significantly changed since 1985 (if we want a tech and media benchmark as hypothetical cause, this would be when cable and personal computers were going mainstream, but gaming had not recovered from the video game crash of 1983.
While American’s non-kin discussion networks have shrunk by a third since 1985, the decline is less significant than the 2006 study leads us to believe. At the same time, mobile and some internet activities were associated with larger and more diverse discussion groups. Against criticism that new technologies weakened the (privileged) local-group network by creating networks that are more geographically dispersed, the Pew study finds that new technologies strengthen local ties as well as increase community participation. Technology is not going to change whether a person desires a large network or a small one. It benefits the extrovert as well as the introvert. That’s one of the big problems when trying to make a value judgment – and studies like these are indeed value judgments – about technology, which has no inherent value.