'Global village' not an internet reality: Sociologist

December 11, 2002

The Internet is not isolating people as critics have feared, but it's not transforming communities into global villages either, say University of Toronto researchers. Where Marshall McLuhan saw new communications media as minimizing local boundaries in the "global village," the scholars have found the Internet is being used more for local, not long distance, contact.

"People worldwide have as many face-to-face relationships as they ever had but the good and bad news is they are adding Internet communication on top of that," says sociologist Barry Wellman. "On the positive side, people are in contact with others more often but the downside is they can feel overloaded from too much contact."

Using data collected in a 1998 online survey on Internet use by the National Geographic Society, Wellman's NetLab research group analyzed user profiles of more than 20,000 adults from 178 countries. His study has been included in Internet in Everyday Life, a book he co-edited with former doctoral student Caroline Haythornthwaite.

His findings include: users are mostly male (54 per cent), speak English at home (75 per cent) and have at least an undergraduate university education (57 per cent). He also found the Internet is the preferred way of communicating with friends and relatives living more than 30 miles away, followed by telephone and face-to-face contact. The Internet is even more widely used to communicate locally as a supplement to telephone and face-to-face contact.

"Despite people's fears, the Internet is not killing communities," says Wellman. "In fact, more people are communicating in more ways and this can be both a benefit and a burden to them."
The book, published by Blackwell Publishing, was supported by Communications and Information Technology Ontario, IBM Institute of Knowledge Management, the National Geographic Society, the (U.S.) National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

CONTACT: Professor Barry Wellman, Department of Sociology, 416-978-3930, wellman@chass.utoronto.ca or Sue Toye, U of T public affairs, 416-978-4289, sue.toye@utoronto.ca

University of Toronto

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