Is the Internet Nightmare for Social Life? Possibilities for Real Connections Are Emerging
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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 ( sharedearth.com). You've got a couch and I need a place to stay ( couch surfer.org). 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 ( timebanks.org).
"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."