Internet in Everyday Life

Wellman, Barry and Haythornthwaite, Caroline
Blackwell Publishers, Oxford
0631235078 / 0631235086

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Cover of book In the movies, when the veil which separates one world from another starts to give way (and narratives always demand this polluting of worlds—ethics enter through the breech), the tip-off is some extra-ordinary event; something happens which cannot be explained by one world’s ways of knowing. In The Truman Show, a set light falls from the sky. In The Matrix, it is a character’s sense of déjà vu. For me (my research world is qualitative and my early raining was in the Humanities) it was reading The Internet in Everyday Life. For most contributors to this edited collection, who rely mainly on quantitative methods, my world doesn’t seem to exist at all (check the bibliographies). And yet we all study the Internet in everyday life. How strange. As a stranger here, then, the questions I ask will necessarily be alien to some of the aims of the book—which is to say, informed by perspectives which I think might have usefully complemented those which dominate The Internet in Everyday Life.

The first sign of otherworldliness comes immediately. In the introductory essay, editors Wellman and Haythornthwaite state that: “The master issue in this book is whether the Internet…is drawing us away from everyday life or adding layers of connectivity and opportunity?” (p. 8). But in the sentence immediately preceding this one, the editors say: “It is time for more differentiated analyses of the Internet to take into account how it has increasingly become embedded in everyday life.” By what trick or privilege can the contributors analyse the impacts on society of an Internet, which is supposed to be thoroughly embedded in it? It seems impossible, but then, this is another world.

However much it presents the impassive face of quantitative science, one gets the sense that this collection is part of a wider polemic. This polemic is nowhere expressly avowed, but neither is it quite hidden, and it is here, at the very origins of the editors’ project, that one finds the Internet dis-embedded from everyday life in a way that permits moralistic assessments. Chapter 3 (Katz and Rice, p. 115) states the issue most nakedly: “A 1988 press release and subsequent study of [Internet] users in Pittsburgh, which suggested that heavy internet use might lead to depression and isolation, received national attention from the media (Kraut et al, 1998).” Thirteen out of twenty essays reference this attention-getting paper (65% of the book). Eighteen out of twenty essays (90%) respond explicitly to the moralistic question set forth by Kraut et al, thereby accepting its terms and conditions: is the Internet good for us or bad? If not a polemic, then, this is a book with a strong common cause.

Wellman and Haythornthwaite appear impartial in their own formulation of the issue: “Is it [the Internet] supporting new forms of human relationships or reproducing existing patterns of behavior?” (p. 8). It’s as if the editors set out to address Kraut et al’s moralistic question by rejecting the question itself, by arguing instead for the Internet’s embeddedness. But the majority of the contributors, in their eagerness to respond to Kraut et al (1998), get trapped in that paper’s moralistic framework. The editors’ inclusion of a single essay which warns that the Internet might be negatively impacting our everyday lives (5% of the book, Nie et al), amidst a mob of essays defending against that very claim, comes off less as editorial equanimity than an attempt to identify and surround the enemy.

Neustadtl et al and Salaff ask different sorts of questions. Neustadtl et al provide a survey of new Internet-based tools for doing social science research. Salaff provides a rich analysis of teleworking, which manages to be usefully critical, historical and political without lifting the Internet out of everyday life in order to assess its impacts on it. And Anderson and Tracey address the book’s driving moralistic concerns, but critically, in order to “question the ‘impact’ model for understanding the role of the Internet in everyday life” (p. 139)—an important point, if one that is ignored by most of the collection’s other chapters.

Anderson and Tracey make another important intervention, questioning whether “Internet usage is too coarse a unit for sensible analysis” and suggest instead that “researchers need to consider the patterns of usage of the various applications or services that the Internet delivers” (p. 139). Blogs, photo albums, chat rooms, porn, gambling, wikis, multi-user games, news sites, religious sites, health sites: “too coarse” indeed. But a surprisingly number of chapters here give no more specific unit of analysis than “the Internet” (viz. chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12).

The Internet in Everyday Life addresses itself seriously to serious ethical issues, along the way providing analyses of ethnicity, geography, gender, economics, social class and science. But rather than investigating how ethics might be changing or need to adaptively change (a question that could only emerge from research which worked with the Internet as truly embedded in everyday life), the contributors tend to ask whether present uses of the Internet are corrosive to a past (nostalgic) set of ethics—which ethics the book, in any case, never makes explicit. What are the mores of this posited society which is or is not being harmed by the Internet? And do we agree on them?

The impression I’m left with, however, is not of a sinister Otherness (as in The Matrix or The Truman Show), but the absurdity of this narrative* in which qualitative and quantitative researchers, social scientists and Humanities researchers, continue to work, each in our own worlds, heedless. Not to discount the differences between these worlds; in fact, the differences are precisely what makes movies about the meeting of worlds worth watching.

*It was 15 years ago that Lucy Suchman and Brigitte Jordan pointed out some of the same narrative problems. Suchman L. & Jordan B (1990) Interactional Troubles in Face-to-Face Survey Interviews, Journal of the American Statistical Association 85(409): 232-53.

Kris Cohen
University of Surrey & University of Chicago