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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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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."