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Thanks to the Web, We're Alone Together and Loving It


There's a professor at the University of Toronto in Canada who has come up with a term to describe the way a lot of us North Americans interact these days. And now a big research study confirms it.

Barry Welman's term is "networked individualism." It's not the easiest concept to grasp. In fact, the words seem to contradict each other. How can we be individualistic and networked at the same time? You need other people for networks.

Here's what he means. Until the Internet and e-mail came along, our social networks involved flesh-and-blood relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues at work. Some of the interaction was by phone, but it was still voice to voice, person to person, in real time.

But the latest study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project confirms that for a lot of people, electronic interaction through the computer has replaced a great deal of social interchange. A lot of folks Pew talked with say that's a good thing, because of concerns that the Internet was turning us into hermits who shut out other people in favor of a make-believe world on flickering computer screens.

To the contrary, the Pew study discovered. The Internet has put us in touch with many MORE real people than we'd have ever imagined. Helpful people, too. We're turning to an ever-growing list of cyber friends for advice on careers, medical crises, child-rearing, and choosing a school or college. About 60 million Americans told Pew that the Internet plays an important or crucial role in helping them deal with major life decisions.

So we networked individuals are pretty tricky: We're keeping more to ourselves, while at the same time reaching out to more people, all with just the click of a computer mouse!