I was surprised to read a column in the Wall Street Journal today suggesting that people who do not spend time online are likely to know more different kinds of people than people (like me) who spend a lot of time online. Columnist Elizabeth Bernstein tells how her older brother has such a wealth of diverse contacts “in large part because he’s offline. At age 52, he’s never sent an email, surfed the Web or bought anything online.”
Bernstein describes the skyrocketing pace of Americans going online in the last few years. Her brother, she says, “belongs to one of the nation’s fastest-shrinking minorities.” And that trend has some serious consequences, she suggests, in terms of how people interact.
But moving the focus of one’s social life online may also make it less diverse, as people tend to seek out shared interests, friends and experiences on the Web. Also unclear is whether online contact comes at the expense of some real-world interactions.
I find that surprising because my experience is precisely the opposite. The people I know in the “real world” tend to have a lot in common with me. They attend the same church, or have kids in the same school, or do the same kind of work (computers), or share my interests in reading or singing. Certainly they may have different political views, or hobbies, or ethnic backgrounds, but our interactions tend to revolve around those common interests that landed us in the same room to begin with.
When I go online, especially to WorldMagBlog, which is the site I visit most often (at least daily, often several times, if there are threads I am following closely), I interact with people I would never meet in “real life.” (I put this in quotes because the time I spend online is part of my real life.) I know there are homeschoolers in the town I live in (our local school board has an office dedicated to supporting them), and I probably know some who attend the same church, but it’s not generally a topic that comes up in conversations. In contrast, at WorldMagBlog we have had many discussions on the subject and I know much more about the views and methods of homeschooling than I would otherwise.
I know people from different churches here in town, because their boys are in our Cub Scout pack, or they sing in the Civic Chorale. But we rarely discuss church or theology, and from the limited conversations we have had, I get the impression that the differences among us are no greater than among different members of the church I attend (which is quite large). At WorldMagBlog, however, I have the opportunity to interact with people from a much greater variety of religious backgrounds, and the conversations often center on how what we believe works out in how we live.
I know from the Yellow Pages that there is a Greek Orthodox church somewhere outside of town, and I might visit it someday. But from WorldMagBlog, I have gotten to know someone who has recently converted to Eastern Orthodox, and how and why. I know there are Obama supporters in town – I see the bumper stickers. But it’s at WorldMagBlog that I can follow along as they explain their reasons for supporting him, and defend their views against their political opponents.
The CIO who heads our department is from Alabama. And my sister-in-law lives in South Carolina. But it’s at WorldMagBlog that I learned about Southern views of the Civil War, about Southern cooking, and followed heated arguments regarding various social trends in the South. I know people with a variety of personality quirks (including myself), but they rarely become the subject of conversation offline. Online, people tell all sorts of odd things about themselves – partly as an effort to establish community because of the significant differences of views on religion and society.
Perhaps it’s because WorldMagBlog is unique. At least, that’s what the blog editor says, and what some people who comment there have said. Perhaps a lot of other online interactions do tend to discourage diversity. I certainly haven’t found anyplace else as interesting to hang out day after day, year after year.
Perhaps it’s also because I’m such an introvert. Elizabeth Bernstein tells how her brother often meets people because he’s looking for someone with some area of expertise, and in the process of learning what he needs he makes new friends. But if I didn’t have the online resources to get the information I’m looking for, I’d still be looking for information through impersonal means, most likely at the local library, where I am unlikely to strike up any conversations (because it’s a library, not a coffee shop!).
I actually do much better at meeting people and getting to know them than I used to. Ten years ago, I never talked to people in the checkout line unless I had to. Then a psychologist I was seeing (regarding my depression) recommended that I try to have a brief conversation with the checkout clerk when I did my grocery shopping. At first it felt very awkward, but gradually I became more comfortable. Now I regularly chat briefly with the clerk, and often with other shoppers in line.
But I still communicate best in writing. I need time to think about what someone says, and what I want to say. And it helps to see the words on the screen, rather than hearing them. So I can carry on conversations online that go a lot further, and often deeper, than most conversations in what we tend to call “real life.” So personally I’m very glad that my real life now includes so many online acquaintances, because it has certainly increased diversity for me.