Social Impact - What has it replaced? / The medium is the message

The commercialization of the Internet brought a replacement of many of the old "ways of doing things." Before the Internet was privatized there were only academic and research users of the network. Following the acceptance of commercial traffic and the large push to get "America Online," the number of users of the Internet increased faster than that of any other new medium. Perhaps if the Internet had never been privatized there would not have been as many new users of the network. Some argue that the Internet has helped to break down social ties, much in the same way that has been blamed on television. If this were entirely true, than it could be said that the Internet has made computer users poorer in social capital. However, the Internet has also helped to form new communication ties. Subnetworks of the Internet such as chat rooms, newsgroups, e-mail lists, and web pages have helped to bring people together to discuss their ideas. While the conversations might not build up democracy and society in the ways that social critics like Robert Putnam claim are necessary (through face-to-face interaction within a physical community), it is conceivable that people are involved in more interaction than they were when the television was the medium of choice. The replacement of television by the Internet in the use of Americans¹ free time might be an aid to increasing social ties necessary for a society that functions well.

Another effect that the Internet has had is a standardization of English as an international language. While computers essentially communicate with numbers, the english-based Domain Name system has brought English to the forefront as the language of computers. Anyone in the world who wants to surf the Internet must at least know some English; they must at least know enough to type a name such as "yahoo.com." Even though many sites are offered in other languages, a user must know English to connect with the majority of web sites. Or so I thought... On November 9, 2000 a test-bed was formed for registering domain names in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. While the names must still end in ".com" (etc), this may be an important step in evening out the language barriers that are inherent in the current domain name system (Hobbes). Perhaps this has been an important step towards the use of English as the international language.

The control that once existed over commercial speech on the Internet kept the networks from realizing their potential as a commercial messenger. It might be said that the original Internet regulations kept the "medium" of the networks from fully realizing the "message" that they were capable of. Now that businesses are allowed to transmit over the Internet there has been a great deal of change in their messages. The interactivity of the Internet allows businesses to practice better customer service, as it is now as easy as an e-mail to get in touch with large corporations. The medium of commercialized computer networks has in some ways made interacting with large businesses more personal. The fact that consumers can communicate more easily with producers has changed the dynamic of commercial interaction. Before the Internet, consumers had to go to greater lengths to communicate with the commercial sector (such as through the telephone or "snail" mail). The messages that the Internet allows has in some ways brought these two interests together.

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©2000 John Thomson, Jr