Is the internet dissolving community threads or simply changing the nature of our interpersonal relationships? This was the question put to British social psychologist, Dr Aleks Krotoski, author of Untangling the Web, by ABC Radio National’s Marc Fennell on Thursday.
Marc asked Aleks whether our attention span had changed since the arrival of the web, with instant information now available at the click of a button. She said while it was easy to be distracted by the internet, humans have always had relatively short attention spans.
Aleks said when she first encountered the internet, she was “astonished by the new realm available through her fingertips.” And with the arrival of the smartphone, interconnectivity was everywhere, something she found “delightful and overwhelming”.
But could all this interconnectivity make us too dependent on our digital devices? Can people ever be “digitally still?” asked Marc, referring to a term she coined in her book.
“We all need a digital detox,” she replied. Software such as Self-Control is designed to self-limit access to websites like Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit. Rather like smokers with nicotine patches, confessed internet addicts can now take control and self-prescribe a temporary cyber patch. “People are trying to push back,” she acknowledged, “but it’s a temporary solution to an endemic problem.”
One woman in the audience, in her seventies, spoke of her interaction with the web and her daily blog. Wondering aloud why she maintained the blog, she mused that she didn’t want to be left behind, and drew a comparison between the social disadvantages of not being computer literate in today’s digital world, and the situation for the illiterate or semi-literate a century ago.
Aleks assured the audience that involvement in online communities can be just as fulfilling as involvement with real-world communities, referring to sites such as Tumblr as platforms for social expression. She said people tend to think of communities as “place based”, where face-to-face contact is comfortable and familiar. But she assured the audience that being involved in online communities is also about group belonging.