Regular readers know that when it comes to “the effects of the internet”, I tend to be an optimist.  Even an apologist.

I have to be honest, though.  My position is to a large extent, one of faith rather than one based on “conclusive scientific evidence”.  No, not the capital-F faith that my July 18 post was all about, but small-f faith.  The “I believe this, well, just because” sort of  faith.

Oh, my reasons are a little better, a little more sophisticated than that.  (At least *I* think so.)  But compared to, say, what is collectively known about the economic effects of the American railroad, or the size of GDP in 1970, our overall empirical sophistication about “the effects of the internet” is amazingly low right now.

Not just mine, but thine and all the Nobel laureates, too. (And we won’t bother mentioning how little clue the Nancy Pelosi/CNN/New York Times crew have.)

And its not for lack of babbling on the question.  Consider the subquestion of: “what is the internet doing to the quality of social relationships?”

Quite frankly, we’re barely getting to the point where we’re even asking the right questions.

On one key empirical point, virtually all the pro-internets and virtually all the con-internets agree:  the network of social relationships looks very, very different today.

But, despite all the “debate,” most discussing this empirical reality fail to engage the real question:  is this good, or bad, and why?  Because virtually no one explains why web-of-relationships-A is categorically “better” or “worse” than web-of-relationships-B.    Worriers point to the decline of traditional connectivity (churchgoing, newspaper reading, political participation)(“A” was better!), while pro-internet people (raising hand) point to all the marvelous-ness of LinkedIn and blogs and Twitter.

But do we ever really engage the question of “what makes A (or B) better?”  I’m not convinced.

Two examples:
1.  Two “differences” you’ll observe if you live any length of time in a small town, one positive and one negative.  Positive: you can leave your car unlocked with less risk.  Negative:  more people will mind your business.  So which is more significant?

2.  Google “twitter whore youtube”.  You’ll find a two part video by one LisaNova.  Watch it.  Are you appalled or do you find it amusing?

With the exception of interludes in London, St. Louis, and Iowa City, and various bits of business travel, I’ve spent all my life in towns and “cities” of under 10,000 souls.  And I can tell you that I haven’t answered #1 satisfactorily yet.

And as for #2?  Well, I have no clue.  I found the video originally because I was searching for what people were saying about twitter;  and then I spent another half an afternoon trying to figure out a subset of the splinter cultures that use/live on YouTube.  (After a bit of searching on LisaNova, I discovered one such splinter culture, populated, at least temporarily, by people blogging as  CommunityChannel, Channel Reviews,  Danny Diamond.  What does it mean that the total views of part 1 of LN’s “twitter whore” parody are approaching 1.5 million, or that her 2007 “last blog ever” (which isn’t parody at all) now has 648,000 views?

Clearly, there is no mainstream anymore. We live in an urban world — with tens of thousands of small town communities out there on the web.  Is this bad, maybe Tower of Babel bad? Or is it good?  Tocqueville’s America of associations writ large?

I don’t know.

It’s definitely a different world.  But “better or worse”?  Well, er, um, it is better.

I think.

Why?

Well, just because.

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One Response to “What’s “better”?”

  1. David says:

    Hi Wade! I found the video both annoying and humorous.

    Thanks to email I’m much closer to my mother and one of my brothers. We “talk” usually a half dozen times a day. There’s no doubt that this represents a vast improvement over our relationship before we started emailing each other, when we could go for months with barely any contact.

    I earn all of my income by teaching online. I don’t have to commute and don’t have to sit in the same room with my students’ behavior disorders. It would be physically impossible to teach all my students at the university without teaching online as they live drastically beyond commuting distance.

    Facebook has allowed me to connect with some great new people and reconnect with a bunch of high school (and in one case even grammar school) friends.

    What’s the “not sure it’s better” part? :-D

    Sincerely,

    David

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