Communication is vital in our daily lives. How we interact with other individuals defines who we are. With the advent of the internet, communication has evolved in many ways. There is much debate on whether the internet is beneficial to interpersonal communication or if it serves as another barrier to interpersonal communication. On one hand, many view the internet as a new technology that is slowly displacing traditional forms of interpersonal communication such as face-to-face interaction.
On the other hand, it is undeniable that the internet has allowed for the growth of social networks and has increased social contacts and interaction (Rasanen & Kouvo, 2005). The internet is gaining worldwide acceptance as a new communication medium. Access to the internet has influenced the social practices of human beings, either directly or indirectly. Because of this, the internet is viewed as the most important and powerful technology today (Lievrouw, 2001; Dickson, 2000).
Not only has the internet become a key medium for news, information, and entertainment, it has become an effective communication tool through email, chats, distribution lists, and internet-based social networks. The Internet “displacement” theory hypothesizes that the use of the Internet, or the time spent online is at the expense of other social activities such as face-to-face interaction with friends and family. The internet has caused a shift in time allocation, reducing the time spent for bonding with family and friends.
Meanwhile, the alternate hypothesis poses that the internet has brought about an additional medium for social interaction and the coordination of social activities. It contends that the internet has brought efficiency to activities such as shopping, freeing more of an individual’s time, thereby bringing less stress and more time for social interaction (Nie & Hillygus, 2002). Yet even with its efficiency and accessibility, barriers to communication still exist over the internet, particularly in the aspects of speech and non-verbal communication.
The internet offers a cheap and convenient communication medium, in fact, it is a lot cheaper than phone calls. Many people would rather communicate through the internet rather than using the telephone, especially in long-distance communication. Although voice chats and voice calls over the internet are becoming a fad nowadays, a greater percentage of internet users still do not have access, or are not yet knowledgeable on the use of this functionality. As such, the effectiveness of communication is reduced.
There is much to be understood simply by listening to one’s tone of voice, something that has not yet been fully integrated into cyber communication. And so, many internet users have to content themselves with using emoticons to express their emotions. In the aspect of non-verbal communication, the internet has introduced a virtual world where people meet without actually seeing each other. Because of this, non-verbal communication becomes greatly impaired, affecting the quality of communication over the internet.
Through non-verbal communication, people are able to exchange ideas through the use of facial expressions and body language. This type of communication is still not widely used in the internet community. Although webcams are becoming popular, it is still not as effective in terms of non-verbal communication as opposed to meeting face-to-face. Also, because of the convenience and monetary advantage of internet use, more and more people are opting to log on to the net to find family and friends than actually going out and visiting family and friends.
Virtual reality is still no substitute for face-to-face interaction, and so this leads to a lesser degree of closeness or bonding. On the other hand, the internet serves to widen our social networks. Many couples and friends nowadays met online. There are virtual communities that share common interests or goals, and many people find camaraderie in such communities. There are even virtual communities that had become tightly knit that members not only strive to communicate with each other over the internet but actually make efforts to meet each other personally.
Looking at it through Martin Buber’s levels of communication, cyber communication is primarily and I-It relationship, simply because with the use of the internet we interact with machines or treat others as such. The internet has caused the proliferation of I-It relationships. People hide behind screen names and avatars, creating a virtual world to their liking, and even going as far as pretending to be somebody else. The biggest downside of the internet perhaps is that one never really knows whether the other person is real and honest.
It is very easy to recreate yourself over the internet and pretend to be someone you’re not. Many people engage in cyber communication to create a virtual reality, and in doing so, one treats other people online as objects, and never fully engage in an I-You or I-Thou relationship (“Virtualism and the Real”). The internet creates a shroud of anonymity, and so it creates a playground for narcissists, scammers, child molesters, and the likes.
Through the internet, they continue to exhibit power and control over others through the I-It interaction that the technology primarily offers (“Virtualism and the Real”). Nonetheless, virtual I-It relationships in the internet can eventually develop into physical I-You relationships, preparing the ground for a potential I-Thou interaction. It all depends on a person’s intentions and goals. Many people go online because they are lonely, and some actually become successful at finding friends and establishing new I-You or I-Thou relationships.
All in all, the internet indeed is a powerful communication tool, but like all tools, its power lies on its wielder. It can serve to enhance communication or it can hinder communication. It all depends on the individual using the technology.
References Dickson, Peter R. (2000). Understand the Trade Winds. The Global Evolution of Production, Consumption, and the Internet. Journal of Consumer Research 27(2), 115-122. Lievrouw, Leah A. (2001). New Media and the ‘Pluralization’ of Life-Worlds. New Media & Society 3(1), 7-28.