Technology

We Are United in Our Digital Isolation

The paradox of the new media is that for each face-to-face interaction we sacrifice, we open up the possibility of connecting with thousands of like-minded people.

Knowing that we have a staggering quantity and selection of media at our virtual beck and call changes the way we perceive and consume media. Those who were once accustomed to experiencing the thrill of the chase when pursuing a rare LP may find the ease with which iTunes offers up long-forgotten songs and artists to be something of a letdown.

Of course, there are still some are rifling through actual bins of actual records (those that remain) in search of a rare LP, a nostalgic experience, or just something more tangible than a download. In a May 13 story for Medill Reports, the news outlet of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Jordan Melnick writes that despite the recession, vinyl is enjoying something of a rennaissance. Among the reasons cited for the allure of shopping for real live records were several observations about how physical products differ from digital ones.

"Stephen Koza, 26, from Brooklyn, N.Y., described an aversion to buffet-style music consumption. 'You can download all you can eat, but [listening to LPs] takes a little more devotion,' Koza said. 'It's so easy on the Internet to consume music like a whale'", Melnick writes.

Besides the unfettered consumption it enables, on-demand media has other sociocultural ramifications. Choosing to have movies, music, newspapers and books delivered to us digitally deprives us the opportunity to interact with others. Granted, making small talk with the record-store clerk may not rank high on everyone's list of fulfilling social interactions (others, though, find it an absolute pleasure), but it is nevertheless an activity that forces one out of the house and into the company of others beyond those in our own household. While just spending time around other warm bodies is no guarantor of happiness, it at least reminds us we are human in a way that online transactions are not able to fully replicate.

When we no longer greet our neighbors at the news stand, or chat with the record store clerk about the album we're buying, we sacrifice something, however small.The paradox of the new media's impact on our socialization lies in the fact that for each face-to-face interaction we sacrifice, we open up the possibility of connecting with thousands of like-minded people -- albeit virtually -- when we go online. We can each find our peer group, however esoteric it may be, online. But one aggregator of online socialization, Yahoo! Groups, lists 492 discussion groups devoted to aquaculture, 28 devoted to the Portuguese water dog, 123 groups devoted to My Little Pony toys, and 2,507 dedicated to "homemaking", a category that encompasses everything from coupon-clipping to emergency preparedness.

And it is important to appreciate how positive the online social world can be. No longer does the aspiring teenage punk rocker, confined to a dreary and un-hip rural or suburban existence, have to feel isolated and alone. Sure, his classmates may think the Gaslight Anthem is a Frank Sinatra song, but he can easily find the band's music, clothing and, more importantly, the peers he craves with the help of the Internet.

Beyond keeping teenagers entertained, the Internet can be a valuable resource for the homebound, the disabled and those facing diseases or infirmities. The ElderCare website offers online support for caregivers, where nearly 4,000 members can share their stories, connect with resources and find the support they may not have in real life.FireflyHealth.com, formerly CarePlace, collects resources about conditions and illnesses, including sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, celiac disease and infertility, alongside discussion forums and organized support groups.

The online community can als be a place of refuge for the socially marginalized, such as for people struggling with their sexuality. In "Out in the country: Rural gays feel less isolated today, but stigma remains", (L.A. Johnson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 18 June 2008), college student Patrick Cameron talked about what it had been like growing up gay in rural Washington County, Pennsylvania, noting that the Internet played a vital role in his own ability to come to terms with his sexuality.

"You can live in Washington, Pa., have a huge community of friends on the Internet and not be isolated and get the support that you need," Cameron said. "It's just really a phenomenal thing."

While this vast wealth of content and community is valuable for those who do not have access to such resources in their personal interactions, the tendency for media to be super-specialized can have other unintended consequences. Just as online discussion groups are tailored with extreme specificity to their target audiences, media such as television and magazines continue to carve out increasingly small niches. There are magazines -- print and online -- for trout fishermen, model railroad builders and body piercing enthusiasts; most cable-television subscribers find themselves with channels they will surely never visit, devoted to golf, hunting, game shows, country music, classic movies and auto racing.

While this specialization is nothing new - humans have 'regionalized' themselves into distinct communities throughout time -- the Internet, more so than any other technological innovation of the 20th century, has fostered the splintering of media into increasingly narrow, customized niches. The "hundreds of channels" once promised via satellite seems laughable in the Internet age, when virtually any television program one can imagine, from anywhere in the world, is just a mouse-click away. Thanks to services such as Netflix, streaming-video websites such as,

Hulu.com, and services such as Google Books, the same can now be said for movies, television and books. Now not even the postman need intercede between us and our desired commodity.

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