From the May 2000 issue of Startups

Listen up, because you're about to get hit with some really bad news: The Net is turning you into a recluse, a hermit, maybe even worse. Skeptical? Don't take my word for it. That diagnosis comes from Norman Nie, a professor at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society.

Says Nie, "The more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings. The Internet could be the ultimate isolating technology that further reduces our participation in communities."

Nie backs up his positions with a detailed study and, you bet, when those findings were released, they made news everywhere. "Time spent online means time away from people, TV," warned Reuters in its headline. Should you be unplugging the modem and clicking the off button on your monitor? Believe Nie, and for sure, the sooner you disconnect, the better-for your sanity and your business.

To all of which I say: Rubbish! If anything, the Net is the most powerful tool ever for linking homebased business owners with the outside world. Because of the Net, I am in touch with dramatically more people than ever before. Ten years ago, the life of a home office worker was lonely, no doubt about it, and friends who worked in offices routinely joked about my reclusiveness.

Now I receive 25 to 50 e-mails a day from strangers. I follow up on many of them. Phone conversations result. I sometimes set up meetings I never would have gone to. I can think of three parties I've attended in the last six months as a result of Net-based invitations. Isolated? Reclusive? No way.

Don't listen only to me. Don Heath, president of the Internet Society, a Reston, Virginia, nonprofit company that's been instrumental in guiding the evolution of the Net, says plainly, "The study is biased and misleading. The Internet brings people together. It's causing people to have more interactions in real life than they would have otherwise."

Heath adds, "Those researchers took some statistics and drew a conclusion. But the same statistics would support an entirely different conclusion-that the Internet encourages interaction."

Meanwhile, a March Gallup Poll survey said that a stunning 72 percent of Internet users said the Net makes their lives better. Only 2 percent said it makes their lives worse, according to Gallup.


Robert McGarvey covers the Web-and plays with the latest cool gadgets-from his home office in Santa Rosa, California. Visit his Web page at www.mcgarvey.net.

Analyzing the Study

Just what statistics does Nie use to back up his conclusions? In this study, 4,113 adults in 2,689 households were given free Web TV and their usage was monitored. What specific conclusions did Nie's team draw?

  • "People spend more hours on the Internet the more years they have been using it."
  • "A quarter of the respondents who use the Internet regularly (more than five hours a week) feel that it has reduced their time with friends and family, or attending events outside the home."
  • "Sixty percent of regular Internet users say the Internet has reduced their TV viewing, and one-third say they spend less time reading newspapers." (Read the entire study at www.stanford.edu/group/siqss.)

As for point No. 1: Yeah, and so what? Of course people spend more time on the Net the longer they're on it, both because their skills increase and also because Net content has mushroomed in recent years. There's just more good stuff on the Net.

As for point No. 3: Again, so what? It's hard to argue that watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is an inherently more socially useful experience than Web surfing. With newspapers, readership is falling because so much of their content has migrated to the Net.

That leaves point No. 2-and at first glance, that's a troublesome finding. Except, when you probe deeper into the report you come upon this: "About two-thirds of those surveyed who have Internet access said they spend fewer than five hours a week on the Internet, and most of them do not report large changes in their day to day behavior."

Huh? The majority of those surveyed said the Net changed their lives not one iota-and yet, somehow, the Internet is still to be viewed as an evil demon that's unraveling the social fabric?

Is Television the Real Villain?

The worst of it is, the social fabric has actually been unraveling. We have less to do with each other. We vote less frequently. We may not even know our neighbors. None of this is good, but it started long before the Net. A half-dozen years ago, a Harvard professor named Robert Putnam published a scholarly monograph titled Bowling Alone. In this paper, Putnam documents dramatic fall off in membership of all manners of civic organizations (everything from PTA to bowling leagues) over the past 40 or so years. A case in point: Membership in the Shriners fell 27 percent from 1979 to 1995. Why? Putnam-whose paper won him an invite to talk with Bill Clinton and also garnered coverage in publications as diverse as People and American Legion magazine-puts the blame on many social forces, including increased mobility (we're a nation of people on the move) and technology.

Technology? You bet. Putnam points a particularly hostile finger at television-not the Net, which scarcely existed when he wrote his paper but television, which unquestionably has led us to interact less. (Read Putnam's paper online at muse.jhu.edu/demo/journal_of_democracy/v006/putnam.html.)

Putnam is a smart, thoughtful man who even proposes some remedies to our increased social fragmentation. And it's too bad Nie hadn't digested Putnam's work before flooding the media with a scary press release.

Oh, and here's more proof of how the Net brings us together. In reading coverage of Nie's study-on the Net of course-I came upon some quotations attributed to Don Heath. I went to the Internet Society's home page, found the phone number-and called him up! We talked for perhaps 10 minutes, and it's a pleasure to chat with a man so smart about the Net-he's been involved with it and the computer industry for decades. And check this out: His bio on the site says Heath "has been a precinct captain for the Republican Party in Maryland; president of the Home Owners Association in Houston, Texas; member of the board of directors of the San Diego Master Chorale and chairman of their fund raising committees." Doesn't sound to me like the Net has turned him into a recluse. How about you?