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Brave New Communications World

  • Martin Secrest

Brave New Communications World

The Internet and mobile phones have brought a sea change to the ways we communicate. People around the world have greater connectivity than ever before, but these communication tools can change social behavior for better and for worse. VOA's Martin Secrest has this look.

The numbers are compelling: 80% of adults in the United States use the Internet. Even more of them own a mobile phone. For American teenagers, the cell phone is king, and text messaging is their preferred method of communication, sending 50 daily text messages on average. A cell phone makes most people feel safer, but texting gives them a feeling of control, according to American University's Naomi Baron, author of the book, "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World":

"[People say] I can send you a text, and not have to listen to what you have to say," says Baron. "They say, 'Yeah, I just want to get my message in, and not have to deal with you. I want to be able to control this communication.'"

Professor Baron says that text messaging can help very shy people reach out. But for most people, it is two-way communication that is most valuable socially, according to Carnegie Mellon sociologist Robert Kraut:

"Communication is both directions," he says. "Not just voyeuristically, looking at what someone is doing, but actually having real interchange with them. You're getting increased social capital."

And according to Naomi Baron, when communication does not go both ways - or people feel they can hide their identity - behavior may range from rudeness to cyber-bullying.

"There is this real concern that some of these media are changing behavior patterns," she cautions.

Social scientists say that groups of people, whether face-to-face or online, tend to be more extreme than the individuals that comprise them.

"The anonymity has something to do with it - (as well as) the increased turnover, so that you don't have to be responsible for your behavior, you don't have a reputation necessarily to uphold, so you can get away with doing things that are riskier or nastier," notes Robert Kraut.

Some cell phone users don't want to see people at all - even their friends. Naomi Baron says that a majority of U.S. cell phone users, as often as once a month, say they will pretend to be talking on their phone to avoid someone they know. Researcher Kraut says that speaking to someone face-to-face is a natural trigger for civility, and that's usually not possible online.

"In some of these settings, you're not getting feedback directly from other people," says Kraut. "So, in a listserve, (if) I say something, I don't get feedback that I've offended somebody for quite some time. While in a face-to-face setting, you're saying something, and somebody looks offended, you know it, even as you're constructing that sentence."

Its pitfalls aside, most people see online communication as an overall benefit for their lives. A Pew Research Center poll finds that 85 percent of people polled say that the Internet has been a positive force for their social world, and this will only grow more true in the future.