Finding community in cyberspace

Is the Internet turning me into a social misfit? That's what I wondered after hearing about a study from the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society at Stanford University.

It reported that those of us who spend more than five hours weekly checking our e-mail or surfing the Web devote less time to traditional media, spend less time interacting face to face with friends and family, and set aside fewer hours for social activities.

Well, I plead guilty to watching less television - and see that as a plus in my life, not a minus.

But six years' experience on the Web, and at least five years on CompuServe before that, shows me that being online often fosters friendship and closer connections.

As an avid gardener, I belong to a listserv of daylily enthusiasts. That's an electronic mailing list of people with a common interest. Someone writes an e-mail, sends it to the listserv's address, and it's instantly distributed to everyone who subscribes to the list - often several hundred, or thousand, people who live throughout the world.

It doesn't take many months of reading daily messages from someone before you feel you know them. One person can always be counted on for a humorous outlook on whatever topic is being discussed. Another takes a feisty approach. You rejoice in their triumphs, try to cheer them up when things go wrong, and sympathize when there are setbacks in their lives. And they do the same.

"When my husband poured kerosene over the stumps of newly pulled yews, thwarting my plans for planting rhododendrons, I turned to my friends on the list," says Carol Wallace of Clark's Summit, Pa. "I received many letters of 'condolences.' I also received a lot of sound advice."

And when she had a yen for blue columbine, her mailbox was soonfilled with seed packets sent by generous gardeners that she fondly refers to as "faceless friends."

But often, when the friendship is built on a common interest, the friends don't remain faceless. Carol and I had hundreds of e-mail "conversations" for two years before we met at a convention last summer.

She didn't look a bit like I had pictured her, but that didn't make any difference. We immediately started talking as though we were old friends, and indeed, that's what we were.

Unlike strangers who frequent chat rooms, listserv members are drawn together by their mutual interest, so those in the two groups I'm in often show up at the same gatherings. And when we do, we find that there's an instant sense of camaraderie among us. We already know and like each other.

Is this sort of cybercommunity any less valuable than what I experience in the neighborhood and town in which I live? It would be if I got so caught up with these "cyberfriends" that I neglected the needs of neighbors who live two houses away in favor of an electronic relationship with someone halfway around the world.

But what has happened to me, and many others, is that our online activities have broadened our sense of community. When we hear reports of a tornado in a tiny town in Oklahoma, for instance, we're immediately concerned for the group's member who lives there. After finding out that he's OK, we organize relief efforts for his neighbors who weren't so fortunate.

Certainly it's easy to spend too many hours on the Internet and not enough in-person time with friends or family. But the same can be said about sitting in front of the TV set, playing golf, or even reading.

For most of us, moderate use of the Internet probably doesn't contract our outlook and our connections with others, but instead expands them.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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