Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Online Interactions and Your Life Offline

Science Daily reported on a new study appearing in American Behavioral Scientist this April that suggests that online interactions have a positive effect in real life in that they serve in part to reaffirm connections to local communities. Authors Caroline Haythornthwaite and Lori Kendall, professors in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Illinois, indicate that the extensive reach of online technologies utilized for communicating and networking, creating and distributing content, and for storing, sharing, and retrieving files are creating ties that bind for offline communities:
"Research on who people communicate with online [technologies] shows a lot of local activity," Haythornthwaite said. "So online communication always reinforces local relationships and local identities that build networks of interacting individuals who are mutually aware of each other. Together, this demonstrates a continuous change in how we maintain local community, while also emphasizing the importance and significance of our attachments to local places and spaces."
Are we defining community too narrowly?

Though I have to admit that I have not yet read the study, I have some reservations of the definition of local in this instance as it is limited to the geographic local only. The authors do note that the prevalence of mobile and digital devices that allow anyone to transmit information quickly has made us hypersensitive to our localities. While I agree that in today's digital again *anyone* can be a writer, editor, and publisher, we cannot discount the ways "local" is constructed via our interactions online. Though the article suggests the authors do recognize that there are many people whose online activities permit them to build new, non-local relationships, and there are people who form relationships via communities they may seek out online (i.e., support groups), they do not appear to recognize the role of online technologies in these type of relationships or the ways in which online technologies can help move these relationships to the offline locality. They do acknowledge that both types of interactions are occurring, but believe that the emphasis on online interactions is based on the geographic local:
"While people can go to a site for information and personal support, they have also formed some long-term relationships with others they've met there and communicated with," Kendall said. "So both things are happening, but I would say there's probably more contact online with locals, and more searches for local information."
I would like to suggest that the "local" is growing. Digital technologies allow the boundaries of the local expand beyond the physical. As a recent Mashable article suggests there are indeed benefits to online interactions in the offline world in terms of reaffirming relationships. However, it seems that the largest benefit is how our concept of the local is reconstructed to permit a larger group of non-locals to exist within our network. For example, in terms of meeting members of your online community offline, community manager Katie Morse describes the ways meeting some of her online connections actually helped her form a better relationship with them because people may be more willing to share information offline as opposed to online. Once this type of interaction occurs, and the online relationship is integrated into your network, that individual is a member of your local. So local events that you may share may actually matter to this person and not just those who are actually physically located in your geographic region.

I think perhaps that online interactions are increasing the space and presence of the local, and this aspect should not be left out of the discussion. What are your thoughts, Readers? And does anyone have a copy of the article in question?

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