Personal Health

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.

"Hey, Lynn, I just read about this new device," I said to a therapist friend who'd come for dinner. "Imagine watching the Olympics or some other big event," I explained while slicing tomatoes for our salad, "but instead of an old-fashioned remote, you have this gizmo that lets you tell the producer what you want to see, search for information about whatever's on the screen, and talk to other viewers around the world. It'd be like watching TV, Googling, and tweeting all at once. "

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When I looked up from the chopping board, Lynn was hunched over, hands covering her ears, eyes shut. "Stop!" she begged. "I can't take any more."

Lynn's no Luddite—she's been e-mailing since the late '90s. She has a computer and broadband, and spends time on the Internet searching, reading, making purchases, meeting people through dating sites. After a bad breakup, she spent a few months chatting in an online support group. Last year, out of curiosity, she reluctantly joined Facebook. And to shore up her practice, she began working with a designer to create her own website. Having an Internet presence has already resulted in new clients, but she still feels overwhelmed, if not a little bit intimidated, by this new digital landscape, constantly shifting under her feet. "I have this feeling that I've been left behind, and I'll never catch up."

Who can blame her? Ten years ago—light-years in Internet time—a "hot spot" was a trendy nightclub, criminals had "profiles," text was a noun, and the word blog didn't exist. In 2000, a mere 46 percent of Americans were online (mostly by dial-up), compared with 80 percent today (mostly by broadband). No one connected wirelessly back then. Today 6 in 10 of us do, a 55 percent increase since 2009. Back then, only half of us had mobile phones; now 85 percent do. Social media sites, such as MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn, didn't exist a decade ago. No one walked around with netbooks, Kindles, Blackberrys, or iPhones; no one Skyped or Tweeted or used Foursquare to let their networks know where they were. Indeed, the convergence of social software, high-speed broadband, and science-fictionesque mobile devices has been accelerating change at such a dizzying pace that researchers already see a generation gap between kids born in the 1980s and those born 10 years later.

I joined Facebook in 2006, only because I had to. I was beginning to research a book about connections beyond our intimate circles. I set out to explore why we now spend more time interacting with these "consequential strangers"—acquaintances—than with our loved ones. In part, the answer was the pull of social media—Internet sites that beckon us to mix and mingle. That year, in fact, Timemagazine put a mirror on its cover to indicate its choice for Person of the Year: You. The editors declared it, "a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before."

That prophecy has come true—and is continuing to unfold in ways that exceed the wildest predictions of even a few years ago. The power to share has already turned once-solitary activities into social occasions. Last year, while watching the Oscars, I dished fashion with people halfway around the world. Kindle readers can see which passages other readers highlight. In an instant, you can tap into debates about the Gulf oil spill or eavesdrop on Tea Party conversations.

Want to meet others who have a passion for saki? Talk to a mother who has postpartum depression? Do good works in exchange for a Lady Gaga ticket? Let someone know that you're in a coffee shop in Atlanta? Keep track of your running times with thousands of other Nike-wearers? Send a message to the President? To borrow from the familiar iPhone ad, there's an app for that. Today our everyday existence is so seamlessly entwined with the Internet that we now take it for granted. As media theorist Doug Rushkoff, author of Life, Inc., puts it, "The Internet has changed from a thing one does to a way one lives."

The Internet has become the world's largest, and arguably most important, social thoroughfare. It intersects with millions—no, billions—of streets, alleyways, and self-contained villages where you can find, meet, and work with just about anyone on the planet. It's a marketplace for exchange—of things, of services, of thoughts—a place where you can mobilize "smart mobs" or plan "meetups," where you can "crowd source" ideas or join others on the "creative commons." Every day we have tens, if not hundreds, of brief interchanges—by e-mail or Skype, by instant messages and posts. We poke and we lurk; we bear witness to many lives and mourn deaths together. In short, we're always "talking" to someone and can now recruit more people into our lives than ever before in history.

Welcome to the Relationship Revolution—a radical shift in the way we view ourselves and our social ties. The Internet creates "ambient intimacy," which London-based tech designer Leisa Reichelt defines as "being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn't usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible." As a result, we're awash in relationships. There's always someone we can turn to for advice, information, solace, validation, a good laugh, a thought-provoking suggestion—and there's always someone listening.

"I can put out a nugget of thought on Facebook and Twitter, and a few hours later, a thousand people are talking about it and creating a community around that idea," says visionary Jean Houston, author of The Possible Human and founder of the "social artistry" movement. Mentored by the likes of Margaret Mead, who predicted that "a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens will change the world," Houston sees social media as a powerful tool for change. "I find it to be fascinating. It makes me think deeper."

The problem is, many of us feel as Lynn does—slightly out of synch—even as we commit increasing stretches of our time to the Internet. We watch as our businesses and professions change because of it. We wonder what new kinds of enterprises will spring from it—and what effect it will have on our hearts and minds. In the face of such cyclonic change, it's tempting, and perhaps comforting, to close our eyes and cover our ears, to dismiss it all as fad or meaningless clutter and distraction, or to portray blogging and other "public displays of connection" as narcissistic me-fests. We hear often enough that we're seduced and addicted, that we risk disappearing into our screens, that it's frying our brains. Critics liken the Internet to a big focus group in the sky, where our preferences and tastes are out there, ripe for the picking. When you post, "I had a great yoga class" on Facebook, it's no accident that an ad for yoga clothing soon appears on your page. Websites, apps, and digital devices are the new agents of commerce. As Helen, my contrarian friend in Tucson, puts it, "Steve Jobs invents something. Then we suddenly need it."

The Internet may well be a 21st-century capitalist dream, an intrusion that we've yet learned to manage, but it's clearly a social venue as well—one that's catapulted us into an era of "mass mingling," says trend-watcher Reinier Evers. "More people than ever will be living large parts of their lives online in 2010. Yet, those same people will also mingle, meet up, and congregate more often with other 'warm bodies' in the offline world."

Theodora Stites, a cute and congenial twentysomething, told me when I first interviewed her, "I worry that my generation doesn't know how to be alone." Four years later, this much is abundantly clear: it's not just Stites's generation. Huge numbers of older folks have found their way to various watering holes in cyberspace too. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, which has been tracking online habits since 2000, 70 percent of adults 50 to 64 use the Internet, and 38 percent of those 65 and older. iStrategyLabs, an Internet marketing company, found that the 55-plus crowd on Facebook increased by nearly 923 percent between 2008 and 2009.

So if you think you aren't affected, either because it's all too space-agey, too complicated, too scary, or you're just not interested—like Helen, who grouses about cell users' rudeness and finds social media "a time drain" and "boring"—think again. Your kids, your parents, your friends, your clients, your long-lost cousins, and citizens around the world are already swimming in the digital stream. You can't stop the river. Even if you never join Facebook, never read an online newspaper, or never send another e-mail, the Internet—the steam engine of digital technology—will continue to affect you.

How? The answer is different for each of us, but playing nicely in the sandbox of cyberspace is inspiring more and more people to share and cooperate, and by all indications, this mentality is extending into other arenas of life and changing our attitudes toward one another. In neighborhoods, towns, and cities, politics, the arts, businesses, the healing professions, government agencies, charitable institutions, or any other place where cultural scripts play out, one central theme resonates: the growing and unbounded power of public engagement made possible by digital technology.

The Capture of Fire

Crunchy-granola types and top guns make for strange bedfellows, but 40 years ago, when a handful of government, technology, and military specialists conceived the Internet as a warning system against nuclear invasion, members of the counterculture took notice. John Perry Barlow, a cofounder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, went so far as to liken the Internet's potential to "the capture of fire."

One of the most influential early enthusiasts was Stewart Brand, publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, the go-to resource for everything from composting to cannabis cultivation, first published in 1968. Brand was a big fan of computers, imagining them as "an avenue to realms beyond our dreams." By the mid-'80s, he'd cofounded the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link ("the WELL"), effectively providing a conference room in cyberspace for his planetary-conscious pals.

Participation in the WELL wasn't unlike what we see today: a mixed bag of conversation, arguments, information-sharing, and support. No one could upload images or sounds back then, but it was a heady experience nonetheless. "Finding the WELL was like discovering a cozy little world that had been flourishing without me, hidden within the walls of my house," wrote journalist and educator Howard Rheingold in his 1993 book, Virtual Communities. "An entire cast of characters welcomed me to the troupe with great merriment as soon as I found the secret door."

By the late '90s, those who were paying attention perceived the Internet as former CEO of Intel Andrew Grove did: "a 20-foot tidal wave coming, and we are all in kayaks." But the truth is, smaller waves of modernization had begun to change society's course long before. Instead of living in communities, like small villages and neighborhoods, each of us was embedded in his or her own "personal community"—a collection of local and far-flung others who met specific needs. Sociologist Barry Wellman stresses that the Internet didn't cause this shift to "networked individualism," as he calls it, but it has "reinforced, facilitated, and certainly increased the trend." With digital devices that allow 24/7 access, he adds, "we now have a lot of power at our fingertips." Like snails, we can carry our worldly connections with us, blurring the lines between private and public, leisure and work, family and career.

Early fears that we'd become a nation of loners, depressed, alienated, and zonked out in front of our computers haven't been substantiated. In 2009, a Pew Research Center survey found that people who have Internet access and/ or a mobile phone are likelier to have bigger, more diverse "discussion networks" than people who lack these connections. Some 40 percent of adult users are also "content producers," who shoot photos, and produce videos and music for their own and others' enjoyment, says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and coauthor, with Barry Wellman, of the upcoming Networked: The New Social Operating System. Through this "creation of personal media," Rainie says, Internet users form "just-in-time-just-like-me support groups" that expand and further their personal networks.

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, 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."

As he sobbed uncontrollably, another thought suddenly entered his mind: this wasn't just about him. "I made a vow to do something—to create a world where people could help and inspire, where they could follow their passion, and where community was a constant part of life. I went back to my hotel room, wrote a letter of resignation, and left."

Gorenflo abandoned corporate America and used his technological chops and business acumen to create, an online magazine that serves up examples of "sharing, collaboration, openness, participation, and transparency." The site, which now has 25,000 unique visitors a month, features trend articles, as well as service pieces—for instance, how to co-cultivate a garden or share a car. In one year, its community has grown from a core group of "social entrepreneurs" to more than 6,500 members. Gorenflo believes that showcasing out-of-the-box ideas in various fields will propel them. "Sharing is one of those solutions where you get multiple benefits," he maintains. "It brings people together and helps them save resources and money." It's also an ideal solution for uncertain times. "When you're in league with others, you can prepare yourself and your community for any type of outcome."

Sharing itself isn't new, of course—humans have done it since the dawn of time. Evolutionary scientists say it's encoded in our DNA; neurobiologists have shown that our brains resonate with the neurons of others. Or, as my 91-year-old ex-mother-in-law, Dottie, puts it, "People need people." But the Internet doesn't just give us people—it's the "six-degrees phenomenon" on steroids.

"You might sit at your computer, thinking you own and control your own ideas," says Swarthmore psychology professor Kenneth Gergen, "but it doesn't take long before you realize that you're part of a bigger network. You're fully wrapped up in relationships out of which you come and in which you participate. To look at yourself as a single being is absurd. The new way to look at it is, 'I'm connected, therefore I am.'" Researching his latest book, Relational Being, Gergen found evidence of a shift from "an individualistic to social premise" in a wide range of fields, including law, education, psychology, and conflict management. The "chief stimulus" has been the Internet, he says. "The result is not only a profound increase in ongoing connectivity, but the world's people becoming increasingly capable of effective collaboration."

Certainly, technologies of the past have allowed us to share, but Web 2.0 opened a whole new world of possibilities and partnerships by making many-to-many conversations possible. And when tens, thousands, or millions of us can hang out and talk about what's broken in society, it's harder to hide things and easier for even a motivated novice to spread a message and to garner support. Take Regina Holliday, 37, a Washington, D.C.-based artist and mother of two. In March 2009, when her husband, Fred, then 36, was diagnosed with Stage IV kidney cancer, Holliday was rarely online. But Facebook seemed like the easiest way to update friends and family.

Having a Facebook page is like hosting a cocktail party for all the people you've ever known. There's your client in one corner, some guy you met on a vacation in Mexico in another, various family members scattered throughout the room, and the members of your book club hanging out at the punch bowl. When you "talk" (post), they're all in earshot. Your guests might then repeat the story at their cocktail parties—and so on and so on. Some users aren't thrilled about this possibility, and prefer to keep the various arenas of their lives separate. But one woman's gossip is another woman's gold: Facebook worked for Regina Holliday.

"I went from 46 friends to hundreds—my friends' friends, people in the community. Because I was posting to a pretty wide audience, I held back at first. Finally, I started talking about the screw-ups." A botched diagnosis was followed by inconsistent and uncaring treatment, and, worst of all, a refusal to disclose information about her husband's rapidly deteriorating condition. At first, Fred worried that his wife's complaints would "make it worse," but in his final weeks, he told her, "Go get 'em, honey." Four days after his untimely and horrific death in June, Holliday poured her grief and rage onto a concrete wall in the CVS parking lot on Connecticut Avenue. It took her 70 days to complete a 25-by-50-foot, Guernica-like painting that captured her family's tragedy. Its title—73 Cents—refers to the per-page cost of obtaining her late husband's medical records.

She's just a housewife and mother, but if you Google "Regina Holliday" today, you'll get 4,870,000 hits. They'll take you to her blog about her Medical Advocacy Mural Project, to media coverage of her story, and to other "Health 2.0" bloggers who coached her and helped spread the word. You'll see her at a press conference with Kathleen Sibelius, where the Secretary of Health and Human Service thanks Holliday for her heart-wrenching testimony. Hearing Fred's story helped convince lawmakers that patients, not just medical personnel, should be included in the "meaningful use" portion of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HI-TECH). Holliday says that her story was "bad enough" to attract attention, and it played out against the backdrop of national healthcare reform. She knows she couldn't have done it without the help of her consequential strangers in D.C. and online. "A husband and wife who own a deli gave me a wall [to paint on]," she writes on her blog. "A man who owns a gas station gave another wall. I painted and you blogged, tweeted, and posted on Facebook."

The New Social Contract

In 2008, Chris Elam, director of Misnomer Dance Theater, a small avant-garde troupe in New York City, launched an "Audience Engagement Platform," using videos and viewer comments, live chats and blogs. "There are people who are hungry for meaningful engagement with the arts," says Elam. His goal was to connect with fans and pique the interest of people who weren't yet dance-lovers. "Social media can extend our experience of the performance at all stages of the process." Why not allow patrons to comment on directors' decisions, vote on costume design, listen to dancers' conversations, volunteer to help out in ways beyond just writing a check? "They can see themselves as coproducers, not just bystanders."

A devil's advocate might point out that "audience engagement" translates into greater ticket sales, and that social media, in the world of commerce, is just a new kind of advertising, the elusive "killer app." Everyone seems to be trying it. But something else is happening as well. The most successful social media experiments—whether spearheaded by one person, a group of individuals, a company, or an institution—invite you in, treat you as a friend, and make you feel at home. Look around, they say, and tell us how we can make things better; get to know us. Get involved and tell us what you think.

"The Internet has changed our relationships and our social contracts with one another," maintains Beth Kanter, a veteran of the virtual world. Coauthor, with Allison Fine, of The Networked Non-Profit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, in 2009, Fast Company named Kanter one of the most influential women in technology. When she talks, her 300,000-plus Twitter followers listen. "On my blog, I share everything I know." If a person or organization isn't genuinely committed to establishing relationships, sharing openly, and really listening to its constituents, Kanter says, social media is just window dressing. "In order to use the tools effectively, you have to change the way you work. There's a loss of control—transparency means having more porous boundaries. The norm now is to be open."

Ironically, a short 15 years ago, when a 28-year-old computer scientist named Pierre Omidyar created "AuctionWeb," a software program that enabled people to buy and sell over the Internet, few believed that strangers would trust each other enough to exchange money online. But Omidyar "founded the company on the notion that people were basically good, and that if you give them the benefit of the doubt, you're rarely disappointed." His goal was to create "an honest, open environment," which, he believed, would "bring out the best in people."

You probably know the company as eBay. Omidyar built it, and we came. "It would have seemed like a crazy idea even a few years ago," says Rachel Botsman, a branding expert and coauthor, with Roo Rogers, of What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborate Consumption, "yet 99 percent of the trades on eBay happen successfully. Technology enabled trust between strangers."

True enough, we're less afraid to talk to strangers online. We (mostly) use our real names when we display images or twitter our opinions and our favorite links. In return, we get a glimpse of other people's lives. Deanna Zandt, author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, thinks of social networking as the "digital version of consciousness raising" because each tweet or status update says, "This is what it's like to be a person in my shoes." We help and are given help, we share and snack on morsels of information or inspiration. These brief encounters are surprisingly satisfying—and compelling. Being a participant is rewarding, like winning in Las Vegas—you want to go back for more.

Seriously, those of you on Facebook, admit it: it's not like spending a week at a soup kitchen, but when you say a kind word, wish happy birthday, or even "poke" someone just to say hi, don't you feel like a good citizen of Our Town? It puts a high gloss on your self-image. You see yourself as someone who cares about, and cooperates, with others.

Arguably, a new ethos of collaboration has quietly crept into organizations and individual practices. For example, consultant Nancy White, coauthor with Etienne Wenger and John D. Smith, of Digital Habitats, describes her work with clients as "co-learning." When an individual or organization comes to her for advice about using social media to collaborate and create community, she doesn't position herself as "the expert." She shares her experience and contacts, but there's a great deal of trial and error, and if an idea fails, she and the client take stock as a team. She stresses that "it's not that the tools themselves inspire trust and collaboration. We use them as a medium to connect, and thus generate trust and enthusiasm." White has seen this play out in her own life. "Having a public identity as a businesswoman means that people can learn a lot about me before they even contact me, because I blog and have an online presence. As a result, I tend to have long-term relationships with my clients—and almost 100 percent of the time, good relationships."

"It's all about relationships," agrees branding expert Botsman. "The sharing behaviors of sites like Flickr and Twitter are becoming second nature, and are being applied to offline areas of our everyday lives." We're hungry for community, she adds, and are redefining "what a friend and neighbor mean." As a result, we're seeing the rise of Internet-driven connections in the marketplace—a phenomenon she calls "collaborative consumption." After "decades of hyper-consumption," we're beginning to question the environmental and economic wisdom of ending up with the most toys.

Botsman lumps collaborative consumption into three general categories: "Redistribution markets," such as eBay, Craigslist, Freecycle, and the more than 300 swap sites on the Internet, stretch the life cycle of a product, by moving it from a corner in your attic to somewhere it's needed. "Product service systems"—an old idea recast by digital technology and innovative business models—put the emphasis on access over ownership. Why buy a car that costs on average $8,000 a year to run when you can spontaneously hop into a Zipcar when you need wheels or log onto Share My Car, where you'll find someone in your area whose car just sits in the driveway? The third manifestation is "sharing lifestyles," in which you barter time, skills, things, or physical space. You have land and I the desire to garden—we can both reduce our grocery bills ( You've got a couch and I need a place to stay (couch I'll take the time to clean your yard, so I can earn a time-bank credit that I can use for goods or services I need (

"We're in this perfect storm," says Botsman, "where the sweet spot of intrinsic behavior meets the Internet. We can mimic the ties that used to happen face-to-face, but on a scale and in ways that have never happened before. Social networks and real-time technologies are taking us back to bartering, trading, swapping, gifting, loaning, and sharing, but they're being reinvented." Whereas credit ratings gave people access in the "old consumer system," she adds, peer evaluations enable us to become collaborative consumers. "Mark my words, it's only a matter of time before we're going to be able to perform a Google-like search and see a cumulative picture of our reputation capital. With every spammer we flag, idea we post, comment we share, we're actually signaling how we contribute, and whether we can or cannot be trusted."

"The Great Either/Or of History"

There are caveats of course—and reason to be skeptical. The online universe is like a big city: anyone can live and lurk there—charlatans and crazies, predators and malicious "trolls" who verbally torture other users, hackers and hoax-meisters, conspiracy theorists and bigots peddling messages of hate and division. Acknowledging these "toxic raiders"—dark forces that have been with us since the dawn of history—Jean Houston characterizes this time as "the great Either/Or of history"—a period that will determine whether we can harness the Internet's vast potential to make dramatic changes benefitting millions of people, or simply extend the self-absorbed consumerism that dominates so much of the culture.

To be sure, conversations about "the resurgence of community" and sayings like, "think globally, act locally" and "it just takes one person" have echoed for some 40 years. But talk doesn't always translate into action, nor into public good, says NYU professor Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. It remains to be seen whether we'll fritter away the trillions of hours heretofore spent as passive consumers of television to produce sophomoric amusements like "LOLcats" (silly cat pictures), or use this "cognitive surplus" to collaborate on projects that will benefit humankind.

Shirky, a longtime and respected Internet-watcher, explained at the 2008 Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco why it's so difficult to ascertain what lies ahead for the Internet. "The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work. But despite knowing the inputs, we can't predict the outputs yet, because there's so much complexity." If the Internet is becoming a force for common good, it's also evolving as a shopping mall, a red-light district, an amusement park—places to get what you're looking for and leave—and where we can "entertain ourselves to death," as culture critic Neil Postman once warned about TV. Even the experts are divided on what will prevail. As part of its ongoing Future of the Internet survey, Pew asked techies and old-timers who helped build the web how social technologies might transform our character. "Some say human nature will never change—that the net will bring more divisiveness and attack politics," says Pew's Lee Rainie. "Others say, 'No, we'll know more about each other; be more forgiving.' The reality is that both are true. For some people, it will encourage better angels."

But we can't leave it to chance, says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "It's not enough to make the personal decision that you want a wider world," nor will the Internet necessarily become "a force to smooth out cultural differences." Last July, in his talk at T.E.D.—launched in 1996 as a conference that would bring together people "who seek a better understanding of the world"—Zuckerman ran through a series of sobering statistics suggesting that most of us end up in a "filter bubble" with similar kinds of people, and thus have little opportunity to observe and understand other cultures and ideas. Still, he's hopeful. He believes we're all "xenophiles" at heart—"people fascinated by the whole world, by things" other than our ordinary experience—but we can't just talk the talk. "We have to figure out how to rewire the systems that we have in place. We have to fix the media, we have to fix the Internet, we have to fix education, we have to fix our immigration polices."

Even more important, says Howard Rheingold, who now teaches Digital Journalism at Stanford University and Virtual Community and Social Media at the University of California, Berkeley, we must take responsibility for educating ourselves. Being part of a "smart mob" doesn't guarantee that you're a responsible participant or collaborator. Accumulating friends on Facebook doesn't mean that you necessarily understand how to get the most out of your network, know how to deploy attention productively, or are capable of "crap detection." Even digital natives who've grown up with social media need to learn these "21st-century literacies," the subject of Rheingold's next book.

"Will our grandchildren grow up knowing how to pluck the answer to any question out of the air, summon their social networks to assist them personally or professionally, organize political movements and markets online? Will they collaborate to solve problems, participate in online discussions as a form of civic engagement, share and teach and learn to their benefit and that of everyone else?" asks Rheingold. "Or will they grow up knowing that the online world is a bewildering puzzle to which they have few clues, a dangerous neighborhood where their identities can be stolen, a morass of spam and porn, misinformation and disinformation, urban legends, hoaxes, and scams?" A lot is riding on how we collectively develop our relationship with the Internet. As Rheingold puts it, "the humanity or toxicity of next year's digital culture depends to a very large degree on what we know, learn, and teach each other."