MAY 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 5
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KEVIN RIDOLFI, a graphic designer and Web programmer from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is the creator and editor of Renaissance Online Magazine.
The Internet is killing communication. Despite the claims of the hip, slick ad agencies and the glowing adulation by American society, the Internet has been quickly degrading and eliminating our ability to effectively communicate.
Yes, the medium invigorates and accelerates information. Never before has humanity been able to so quickly distribute content across a fairly universal system. In theory, too, the Internet and its standard features of email, Web sites and newsgroups has shrunk our borders, bringing the world closer together. At least that's the company line, for what can be better than the rapid transport of thoughts, ideas and news? In actuality, the exact opposite is happening: we are reverting and withdrawing as communicators and, by definition, as humans.
Communication is defined as "the process whereby humans collectively create and regulate social reality" by Sarah Trenholm and Arthur Jensen in their book Interpersonal Communication. This basically means that a society agrees on mutual meanings and through these "rules" members can act and function within that society. In fact, the word "communication" itself is derived from munia meaning service. Therefore communication and its tools, whether they be voice, gestures or, in this case, the Internet, serve to allow the common sharing and exchange of information enabling a desired action.
Using these definitions, the Internet isn't living up to the task. While users of the Internet are technically still speaking the same language and viewing identical material, only the first step in the communication process is being accomplished. Other equally important parts of the process are maintaining social roles, presenting a valued image, and generating a well-formed message. Because of the Internet's inherent rapid, "friendly" nature, these steps are often times ignored, blurring and skewing meaning. This trend across email, newsgroups and Web sites is rapidly becoming a dangerous epidemic.
Email, the most commonly used Internet application, is a wonderful tool, allowing for cheap, easy distribution of information (believe it or not its sole purpose isn't the proliferation of chain letters, sex jokes or viruses). The problem, here, lies with the users behind the medium who choose to ignore all grammatical, spelling and etiquette rules when sending messages. Because email is perceived as a "friendly" format used most often for casual notes, lackadaisical habits are formed that eventually creep into business and formal situations. For example, job applicants have begun ignoring every standard resume and cover letter writing "rule" when soliciting a job via email. The tone of the material is too informal, common courtesies such as addressing the message to "Mr. Jones" are tossed out the window, and the grammar and spelling are atrocious. The applicants aren't writing as if they are seeking employment, rather they are writing the same way they would write to a friend to tell them about the previous night's date. Most email correspondence has taken on this overly-friendly tone even with complete strangers, which completely disrupts communication particularly the areas of maintaining social roles (applicant to potential employer) and presenting a valued image (appearing lazy and careless). As with any type of communication, the email writing style needs to shift depending on the recipient.
Newsgroups, the most common waste of space on the Internet, allow for a bunch of shallow, petty and self-appointed pundits to comment on public postings with utter disregard of overall meaning and completeness of thought. The best groups -- those that are moderated -- allow for the distribution of textual information across a large body of users, but they are few and far between. The problems, and there are many, lie with unsubstantiated posts (there is no validation procedure), holier-than-thou responses and a completely unproductive, pointless environment. Here, the common practice is for someone to respond to a post, not in its entirety as with traditional letters to the editor, but rather in hacked and frayed pieces. The message ultimately is completely lost as the reader concentrates so hard at tearing apart each sentence without comprehending how it fits into the whole paragraph or post. Trenholm and Jensen point out that "if we try to understand a river by analyzing a bucket of water drawn from it, we are not studying the river as a whole." Individual words, sentences and paragraphs are a part of something greater and a message can only be effectively communicated by combining these elements as intended.
[ CONTINUED: The Impersonal Extranet ]