Saturday, June 24, 2006

circle of friends

There's another study reported on in the Post this morning, this one saying that people are growing more socially isolated. According to the survey, over the past two decades, the number of people most Americans can confide in has dropped from three to two and the number of people who say that their spouse is the only person they can confide in has increased by 50 percent.

I haven't read the full study, but there were a couple of red flags for me in the article that threw me off. For example, one of the researchers points to the people who were stranded on the roofs of their homes following Katrina as a sign of their social isolation, "Those people did not know someone with a car." Isn't that more of a sign of class divisions between social circles and not necessarily the number of people that those individuals have in their circle of confidantes? It's a bit of a leap. There were so many reasons why people did not get out of New Orleans before the storm hit and taking advantage of a high profile and emotional national issue comes across as opportunistic.

My initial interest in reading the article was to see what was said about online activity. How does this social isolation impact how people interact in the digital space? The article does report that people are making connections with others online, but says that "they are not discussing matters that are personally important". (I presume this was what those surveyed reported and not the conclusions of the researchers.)

Another researcher quoted in the article, Barry Wellman, says that the Internet is actually causing people's ties to grow. He says that the average person has 250 ties to friends and family.

I'm with Wellman. In addition to the fact that the Internet enables us to stay in touch with people who are no longer in proximity to us, people are reaching out to develop communities online because perhaps they are isolated or, at the very least, far away from the natural networks of old friends and family. And they do talk about things that are personally important to them: their relationships, raising their children, their mental health, their fears, their ambitions.

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