Does Web Really Connect Us?

Stephen T. Watson, Buffalo News, December 20, 2010

The Internet promises to let us connect with a stranger in Tokyo, but in reality we’re much more likely to talk to a friend in Tonawanda.

It was viewed as a potentially globalizing tool. But if you look at how users really spend their time online, they interact with people who are a lot like them–sharing the same ethnicity, hometown or class status.

“I think in part that’s just natural human behavior,” said Gregory R. Wood, Canisius College associate professor of marketing, who studies how businesses use social media. “Our online behavior tends to reflect, in part, our offline behavior.”

Millions of conversations take place on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other websites every day, but most are segregated from the rest. Users talk near, but not with, others unlike them.

Local users say they notice the same pattern in their own online interactions, where they mainly chat with friends from school, or back home, about what’s on their mind.

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Experts say this Internet isolation is a concern because, as the problems we face and the economy become more international in scale, we need to become more global in our outlook.

The way to resolve this issue is to translate more websites into other languages and to find the right guides to nudge us out of our online flocks, advocates say.

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From the beginning, theorists argued that the Internet had the potential to revolutionize how we communicate by opening up people to new perspectives from across the globe.

But social media drive so much of the online conversation, and the people we talk to through Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites are usually people we’ve met in our offline lives.

On Twitter, where people send status updates in 140 characters or less, users start out by following people they know.

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New technologies such as Twitter “amplify and extend who we are and our existing tendencies,” said Steve Macho, an assistant professor of technology education at Buffalo State.

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If you dig down into those conversations, however, you’ll see that the people engaging in them for the most part share a common denominator of race or geography or interest.

Zuckerman, in his lecture, said he was surprised to see how many African-Americans use Twitter, which recently did some research on its users.

The service believes 24 percent of American Twitter users are black, about twice their representation in the general population, Zuckerman said. White and black Twitter users aren’t talking to each other, however.

Citing research performed by Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas, Zuckerman points out most popular topics on Twitter are exclusively posted by either white or black users. In May, for example, the term “cookout” was posted almost entirely by black users, while the term “oilspill” was almost uniformly white.

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Digital segregation also occurs in online news.

Google Ad Planner found in June that 99.9 percent of Chinese users, 98 percent of Japanese users and 93.9 percent of American users get their online news from domestic sites.

“We occasionally stumble onto a page in Chinese, and we decide that we do, in fact, have the greatest technology ever built to connect us to the rest of the world, and we forget that most of the time we’re checking Boston Red Sox scores,” Zuckerman said in his lecture.

Beginning in 2008, researchers noticed a trend of users seeking out websites that have an explicit point of view, and one that reinforces their own views, Aaron W. Smith, a senior research specialist with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, told The Buffalo News.

Smith isn’t convinced the Internet is totally to blame.

“Is this a symptom of the broader polarization we’ve seen in the political world?” he asked.

Others argue the Internet has changed how we consume news, making it more interactive, and the medium is filled with information that can challenge a belief system. Liberals can visit the Drudge Report, for example, and conservatives may stop by Huffington Post.

“The key point is, I have to want to do that. It is there,” said Wood, the Canisius professor.

People employ different media–TV, radio, print and online–to get their news, and on the Internet they “forage broadly” and rely on friends to fill in what they missed, Smith said.

But these are people you already have something in common with, so they are sending you links to issues that you might already know about.

Jeffrey J. McConnell, a Canisius computer science professor, laments that we don’t just stumble across things anymore because we’re always directed exactly where to go.

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