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Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age

Author: Mary Chayko
Publisher: Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2002
Review Published: March 2007

 REVIEW 1: Chrys Egan
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Mary Chayko

When I began researching Connecting in the mid-1990s I was not at all certain that the bonds between people who "meet" one another only on the internet would be particularly strong. Like many, I was just beginning to learn about the social effects of internet use: it would take some time before a good-sized body of high-quality multidisciplinary work could be built up. My ten-plus years working as a radio announcer and producer had convinced me that real, meaningful social bonds could develop between radio personalities and their listeners -- especially interested, involved on-air personalities and interested, involved listeners. But I had no idea whether similar kinds of bonds would be found in internet use and, if so, what the potential strength or depth of those bonds could be.

Now, over a decade later, internet researchers like Steve Jones, Nancy Baym, danah boyd, and Barry Wellman and his colleagues -- among others -- have firmly documented the development of strong, vibrant, intimate social bonds and communities on the internet. I have been happy to be able to contribute to that discussion. But skeptics, of course, remain; reviewer Chrys Egan (initially, at least) places herself in this category. Many people still do not consider internet connections "really" real, and are unwilling or unready to envision cyberspace as a truly authentic sphere of experience. This is the primary reason that I consented to having this book reviewed in 2007, five years after its publication.

Like many who study the social impact of the internet, I find myself frequently making and defending the argument that online life IS real life. People often contrast their time spent online with time spent offline by referring to the latter as "IRL" -- "in real life" -- as though time spent online is something other than real. But this is a misnomer. As the people I have been interviewing and surveying keep telling me, year after year, the experience of connecting with others online feels very real to them and has very real consequences (the true test of "realness," according to sociologist W.I. Thomas). Yet, confusingly, we call much of what takes place online "virtual" -- a modifier that implies that something is almost, but not quite, not really, "real."

For me, the most important point in Professor Egan's review of Connecting is her description of how, in the course of reading the book, she becomes convinced of the reality of internet connectedness. In describing the process by which her "re-thinking" takes place, she provides a mighty boost to those of us who seek to make the case for the authenticity of cyber-phenomena. She rightly points out that the data and book's examples are a decade old now; they are neither new nor fresh. But the observations that underlie the data and the analysis remain relevant, I believe, because in the book (in all my work, as a matter of fact) I am concerned less with the impact of particular technologies or applications and more with the larger, more general issue of trying to understand the nature and experience of social connectedness when it is mediated by some form of technology.

If I were to replicate the study today, my interviewees would no doubt reference their current culture in providing examples of their social connections and communities. But I dare say their sentiments and the tone of their responses would resemble those quoted throughout Connecting and reprinted in Egan's review. The feeling and satisfaction of discovering and getting to know someone who seems somehow like oneself, someone with whom a resonant social bond develops, is a pleasure that does not change so much with time. Today, we can make these kinds of connections more easily than ever before, as internet and mobile technologies blanket and define so much of our social lives. But internet relationships, I argue, are not too terribly different from that those that exist (and have long existed) between author and reader, artist and devotee, ancestor and heir, governor and governed, public figure and fan. They can be -- though they are by no means always -- strong, vivid, intimate, and bidirectional. Moreover, all these forms of relationship have a mental component and are profoundly social; this makes them sociomental, with all of the diversity and complexity found in social bonds that have a face-to-face component (though with many important differences).

The internet is far more prevalent than in the days in which I conducted the interviews for Connecting. One might think that we now speak more openly of the nature of the social bonds and communities we form via the internet, but my sense is that, in general, we do not. In Connecting, one of my most interesting findings relates not specifically to the bonds themselves but to the need of my interviewees to talk about them. Hour upon hour, they would tell me what it was like to feel connected to others via books, photos, art, radio, television, telephone, and internet. I literally could not get many of my interviewees to stop talking. I'd often get a phone call the next day from one of them eager to tell me about "just one more" connection they had remembered. Apparently, they experienced a kind of validation, even catharsis, in speaking openly (and as part of an academic study, which may have conferred legitimacy in their eyes to their thoughts and feelings) about things often considered a little silly or shameful: the social bonds they had developed with people they had never met and may never meet. Over and over I heard, "I thought I was the only one who felt this way!"

But in the 87 electronic interviews I conducted throughout 2005 and 2006 for my new book Portable Communities: The Social Dynamics of Online and Mobile Groups (forthcoming from SUNY Press), I noticed much the same thing occurring. In most of these in-depth, open-ended interviews -- conducted online this time, on the "home turf" of internet and mobile users -- I saw the same kind of outpouring of thought and emotion, the same sense of cathartic relief, when people discussed their sociomental connections. This is a project focusing on the social dynamics and implications of online and mobile communities that can be accessed nearly anytime, anyplace. My interview subjects told me of significant cognitive and emotional connectedness in these "portable communities": of work and commerce transacted, of playfulness, sociability, networking, "hanging out," and above all the importance of portability to their sense of social connectedness and community. Useful, meaningful, satisfying social networks, groups, and communities are now available to many at the touch of a button, the stroke of a keypad. The social dynamics associated with portability have proven a rich and fascinating arena for study; I look forward to sharing these upon the book's publication.

To elicit and share the details of people's experiences as members of online and mobile social units is the through-line of all my work. Obtaining data qualitatively, through in-depth interviews, has provided me, I believe, with the most comprehensive and effective means of doing so. Though Egan is quite correct that my work can not be generalized to the larger population, such generalizability is always sacrificed when one makes the methodological choice to engage in qualitative research. Ideally, qualitative studies such as my own will be analyzed in conjunction with large-scale quantitative research (such as that conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project), and syntheses of work in all relevant fields -- communication, media and information studies, sociology, psychology, computer science, even philosophy -- will be routinely performed. The goal, of course, is to develop -- cumulatively -- a more nuanced, more richly textured understanding of the effects of these technologies on individuals, groups, and societies than could be obtained from any one study.

Professor Egan is quite correct when she states that I could have done more to bring attention to the "dark side" of internet use in the book. This is a criticism of my work I've heard fairly often over the years, and one I've only in the last few years begun to really tackle. In my earlier writings (a category into which I will place Connecting), my priority was to bring to light phenomena related to technology and social life that I felt had been insufficiently addressed in the literature or incompletely understood at that time. I didn't feel the need to present all "sides" and aspects of those phenomena, believing that uncovering the issues themselves and illustrating their sociological dimensions was more or less sufficient -- a full day's work, as it were.

But I was wrong.

My involvement with social justice organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Association for Humanist Sociology, and the Holocaust Education Resource Center at my college, the College of Saint Elizabeth, has reminded me of the importance of highlighting on an ongoing basis the social inequalities inherent in technological use, especially when they might not be overtly or immediately apparent. Misuse and dangers of, and unequal access to, technology -- among other problems related to technological use -- color the nature of the online experience and its societal impact in important ways. These social problems should be more widely understood. But they are ideally explored, I think, alongside a consideration of the benefits and satisfactions of connecting technologically, with an appreciation of historical patterns of response when technologies are introduced into and diffused within a culture, both so that an accurate picture of their meaning and effects can be drawn and so that knee-jerk "panic" reactions to these problems and dangers can be avoided.

Though I continue to place an intellectual premium on the identification and analysis of social forms and experiences derived in internet and mobile connectedness, I now more regularly look at, and look for, their positive and negative impact on people's everyday lives and societies. Consequently, my upcoming book Portable Communities focuses on both the internal and external dynamics of online life. It looks at life inside portable communities as described by those who feel a part of them, and looks at the ways in which these communities affect and are affected by the larger society. It examines both the bright and dark sides of our now near-constant availability to one another, our ability to more easily control or harness social interaction, and our increasing tendency to express, extend, and reveal our selves to one another as content creators, not merely users. And it gives technological divisions and inequalities, power differentials, crime, surveillance, diminishment of privacy, online activism and organization, and other such issues, more detailed, and I think more thoughtful, treatment.

It is always a pleasure to read a review in which the reviewer has truly taken the time to not only read but to digest the work ... to examine its scope and intention ... to really "get it." Chrys Egan has done all this and more: she read with a fair and open mind, allowed herself to be challenged and persuaded by the book's arguments, moved those arguments forward, reminded me that work in this vein continues to be necessary, and prodded me to move in needed new directions. An author can hardly ask for more. I am impressed and honored.

Mary Chayko

<mchayko@cse.edu>

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