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Is the Internet Nightmare for Social Life? Possibilities for Real Connections Are Emerging

The Internet may seem like a 21st-century nightmare version of the worst excesses of the marketplace. But it's also creating new possibilities for connection and conversation.

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Most of our online connections are people we know, or once knew. We meet them in cyberspace and IRL—in real life. Unlike typical online communities of the '90s, many Web 2.0 venues specifically encourage offline encounters. At Meetup.com, for example, you plug in your zip code to find other salsa dancers who live near you. Before you know it, you're out with them on a Friday night, hoofing it up to Tito Puente. This is exactly what cofounder Scott Heiferman had in mind in 2002 when he launched the site. "I was shocked that, after 9/11, New York was like one big community, and I remember how good that felt." Why couldn't the Internet be used to harness a similar feeling? Heiferman asked himself.

Indeed, it has. "We went from the page metaphor to the realm of conversation," observes Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which suggests that the uber-connected brain isn't as comfortable with deep thought and sustained periods of concentration as the literary brain. "That's not to take away from the benefits and energy that come out of being connected," says Carr, who's more sanguine about the social ramifications of the Internet. "I do think that leads to certain kinds of innovation. As people are connected to these constant-messaging streams, there are distractions and interruptions, but on the other hand, more connections and free-flowing ideas."

The concern that technology will put us at risk—or that somehow we'll never adapt—is a recurrent theme throughout the history of invention, says Cathy Davidson, professor in interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. "People probably said that about the wheel," she writes in her new book, Now You See It: How the Science of Attention Will Revolutionize our Classrooms, the Workplace, and Everywhere Else. "Basically, the Internet is still in adolescence and so are we as users." Chances are, we won't be here long. One widely reported study, conducted by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Gary Small at UCLA, showed that when "Net Naive" people who had little online experience did a Google search, their brains were less active than those of the "Net Savvy." But thanks to the brain's plasticity, after only five days of practice, not only did the newbies become more efficient searchers, but MRI readings showed that their brains had already begun to develop new neural pathways in areas that were formerly underutilized.

As we segue from an Industrial Age "silo" model, which prized self-sufficiency and separation, Davidson says, the Internet brain will serve us well. "In our private lives in the last decade, we've gone through enormous change that has affected everything, from the way we do business to how we view intelligence and attention," says Davidson. "We have to rethink it all in a more interactive, networked, and collaborative way."

The Personal Is Communal

Neal Gorenflo's epiphany occurred in the midst of an early-morning jog in Brussels, when he stopped to catch his breath. Suddenly, he fell to his knees and started crying. "I was in a warehouse parking lot, and I can still see the asphalt and the bits of broken glass and the faded papers on the ground," he says. Gorenflo, then in his mid-forties, was a systems analyst for one of the world's largest shipping companies. He had a high-level job, sizeable paycheck, first-class travel around the world, and back home in San Francisco, a woman who loved him and a tribe of great friends. "I wasn't depressed," he insists, but in the previous months, he'd become increasingly disenchanted with the company. It had offices all over the world, but no interaction with local communities and little regard for its suppliers or customers. Kneeling on the pavement that morning, Gorenflo knew he didn't want to "look back and regret not doing something I cared about."