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Wed, Mar 06, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Net Jeremiahs sound alarms over Web hype

A group of researchers pshaw the notion that the Net has increasing social benefits

By Andrew Ferguson  /  BLOOMBERG , WASHINGTON

Lutz Erbring is a social scientist, so naturally your first assumption -- - nothing personal against him, of course -- is that he's full of baloney. But not so fast.

Erbring is a professor of mass communications studies at the University of Berlin. He also works at the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, or SIQSS -- an acronym only social scientists can pronounce.

With two Stanford colleagues, Erbring has just written a paper with the less-than-red-hot title "Internet Use, Interpersonal Relations and Sociability." It deserves a rousing round of huzzahs, although it probably won't get one when it's published later this year in the book The Internet in Everyday Life. Erbring and his colleagues are what you might call Internet skeptics. This puts them at odds with much of the intellectual world, where the dominant view of the Internet and its social effects is aggressively Utopian.

Even the collapse of the technology boom and the deeply satisfying implosion of such firms as Flooze.com and Boo.com has failed to dampen the ardor of the enthusiasts, who continue to herald a blissful future of virtual communities, frictionless commerce and personal freedom unconstrained by time or space.

Some of the cheerleading almost makes sense, as Erbring and his co-authors acknowledge. Nobody will deny the benefits the Internet has brought to business.

The enthusiasts, who include many of Erbring's fellow social scientists, go further. The Internet, the boosters say, brings similar benefits to noncommercial life as well -- creating new, improved forms of human community and enriching civic life, even as it alters some of its traditional arrangements.

"Sorry," Erbring said in an interview last week. "We don't buy the hype." To get a handle on how Internet use affects the way people relate to one another, Erbring and his colleagues fielded a random sample of 6,000 computer users to fill out detailed time diaries.

The sprawling pile of numbers that resulted was then teased and tortured according to the excruciatingly precise, not to say boring, methodology of social science.

And the conclusions are precise, too.

"For each minute spent on the Internet during the last 24 hours, there is a reduction of approximately one-third of a minute spent with family members," Erbring and his colleagues write.

According to overall usage rates, this means that the average American spends about one hour less a week with his or her family than he or she would otherwise, thanks to the Internet. It has similar, though less drastic, effects on the time people spend kibitzing with colleagues at work. And that time you used to spend chatting with family and friends is now spent alone, staring into the glow of a computer monitor.

"Time online is largely an asocial activity that competes with, rather than complements, face-to-face social time," Erbring and his colleagues write.

Now, this might not seem like shocking news to you, but it should be a revelation to the Utopians. Some of the more Internet-happy social scientists have declared that Internet use has no negative effects on family time or face-to-face contact. But the studies on which they based their conclusions were smaller and much less detailed than Erbring's.

Other enthusiasts will concede the point that the Internet draws people away from each other. But it compensates, they argue, by creating new forms of social contact -- e-mail, for example, and those virtual communities extolled so lavishly in magazines like Wired.

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