Email, IM's, chatrooms, blogs, discussion boards. Today much of our communication takes place online. From MySpace to Yahoogroups to Blogspot many of us have relationships with people we may never meet in person. The researchers call this Computer-Mediated Communication. This blog will explore in laymens terms the findings of this research.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Getting to Know You -- Again -- Online

Remember that guy you went to the prom with in high school? What about that second cousin you hung out with at the last family reunion five years ago? And whatever happened to those people on your college debate team? Where are they now? What are they doing?

One of the interesting phenomena of computer-mediated communiation is how it has facilitated the ability to reconnect with people with whom you have lost touch. If you have ever searched for a former class member or renewed an acquaintance with a long-lost relative, you are not alone.

A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (2000) found that people are using the internet to improve communication between family and friends and to reconnect with those with whom they have lost touch. Unlike many research studies where the sample size is limited to a few college students, the Pew study had over 3500 respondents to their survey. (Just a note: The Pew Internet and American Life Project provides many different "snapshots" of the impact of computers on everyday life from online dating to religious uses of the internet.)

The survey also had the unique feature of not only asking what people did online in general, but also asked what they had done "yesterday." (p. 9)

Over half of those online (55 percent) said that the use of email has improved their connection with family members. Almost 60 percent say that they communicate more frequently with family members after obtaining email. (p. 7)

A similar pattern holds for significant friends. The survey found that 66 percent of have improved our relationships with significant friends through the use of email and 60 percent of us communicate more frequently with friends because of it. (p. 7)

But we are not only keeping in touch, we are also reaching out. Pew (p. 8) estimates that 26 million Americans have used the internet to reconnect with a family member and to begin communicating regularly with that person. According to the report, 24 million have used the internet to search for a family member online. (p. 8)

One interesting detail was that an estimated 16 million Americans say they have learned more about their family members since obtaining email. (p. 8)

Email is becoming the primary mode of communication for some families. Among those who email relatives 40 percent communicate more with that person by email than in person (p. 8). Siblings email more often than than they talk on the phone. (p. 8) Parents and children talk on the phone about as often as they email each other. (p. 8)

Some of the reasons for this are interesting as well. One is the question of time. For both family members (62 percent) and friends (72 percent) respondents said that they liked email because they "can stay in touch without having to spend so much time talking to them." (p. 8) I don't know if this is a commentary on our busy lives or the relationships we have with family and friends, but I find myself preferring to fire off an email to a freind rather than pick up the phone and call, especially if it is a minor item like confirming the time of a social event.

Also, nearly 1/3 of the respondents say that it is easier to say frank or unpleasant things in an email than face to face. They also believe that blunt emails are good for their families.

When I was a kid in the --- well sometime before the advent of the internet --- the computer was the stuff of science fiction. The idea of a "personal computer" was so exotic that it was something out of Star Trek . We have come a long way in terms of how the computer has become embedded in daily life. The fact that we communicate with our families as much, if not more, online as we do in person or on the phone shows that the computer has moved from being a technological marvel to being a household appliance.


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