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Social Significance of the Internet

Instant messaging has been a killer Application on the internet. This is also being supported by SMS which is more pervasive and always on. Till the last century started, face to face converstaion was the only way to build relationships, supported by letters which were hand delivered for many centuries. Point to note is that all these conversations were “1:1” mainly through letters and “1:many” through newspapers, radio and tv, also called broadcast media. Then we had “many: many”, first instances of which were telephone conference calls progressing to video conferencing. As Clay Shirky quotes, thats the best it got, cumbersome, expensive and unmanageable in large groups. Another point to note, this model was popular mostly in enterprise and did not develop in the consumer market. Till the internet took off, towns were growing and people were faced with loneliness. Connecting to people with similar tastes, thinking and ideologies became more and more difficult. As you age you make less and less new friends and engage more without choice with the ones you have. Vertical publishing covering topics of literature, hobbies, travel etc. grew but remained a “1 : many” kind of converstaion. Bottomline, barrier to reach someone outside the home increased, hence net ability to converse decreased.

Shirky adds, the radical change was de-coupling groups in space and time. To get a conversation going around a conference table or campfire, you need to gather everyone in the same place at the same moment. By undoing those restrictions, the internet has ushered in a host of new social patterns, from the mailing list to the chat room to the weblog. Now we have application like Webex and VS webcast from Virage that are accelerating the decoupling.

I am writing this article from Hong Kong, which at this time is cursed with the spread of the SARS virus, significantly slowing down the activity and economy of the city. Airports are doing health checks, people everywhere are wearing face masks, and schools ordered to close down for a week. But some schools are continuing interaction with their students by posting lectures and assignments on their websites. If anything the internet has kept life going when the real world has screeched to a grinding halt.

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