Renaissance Online Magazine Column

MAY 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 5

KEVIN RIDOLFI

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Revisiting the Internet's ongoing attack on our ability to communicate

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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.

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GLOBAL VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
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Web sites, themselves, are a unique medium as they find themselves seemingly stuck in a grey area between true interpersonal and mass communication. With interactivity targeting an individual's attention -- especially with the personalization features now found on the most successful sites -- Web sites can be easily confused as a one-to-one relationship. However, a Web site's ultimate target remains one-to-many, much the same as television and radio. Todd Hunt and Brent D. Ruben of Rutgers University describe this mass communication process as a two-way street with indirect or direct sharing of thoughts in both directions: producer to information to consumer and back again. Both site mangers and visitors need to keep this process in mind. Managers must realize a global perspective when creating content; their audience potentially comes from very different backgrounds and will therefore have very different reactions to the same material. Visitors must realize that although the medium appears to target them alone and wears the guise of anonymity, they still need to be conscious of maintaining social roles and presenting a valued image when interacting with these sites. As with email, behavior needs to be modified accordingly, when visiting Newsweek.com as opposed to Little Timmy's Home Page for instance.

It has become commonplace -- unfortunately even accepted -- to take advantage of the anonymous and impulse-driven nature of these media. Millions upon millions of bytes travel on the information superhighway that would never be spoken in person, over the phone or even mailed in a traditional letter. A user reads an email or a post, or visits a site, grows impassioned by the content and quickly jots off a response. There is no behavior modification or check point in the Internet process at all. Messages are created off-the-cuff, unrehearsed and in the heat of the moment; and communication suffers for it. How easily -- albeit cowardly  it has become to send a negative, profanity laced email when your return address is coolguy@hotmail.com. How personally rewarding it must be to engage in mental masturbation by responding to a seven paragraph newsgroup post by tearing it apart line by line rather than comprehending the whole message and responding intelligently to that.

The future of effective communication balances sorrowfully on the brink of extinction as a result of the careless, ultra-informal, language-be-damned habits of the Internet. Evidence points to the teenagers who rush home from school to fill chat rooms and email the same friends with whom they just sat in school. We can look forward to people ignoring properly formed sentences and societal norms just to get their thoughts out quicker, regardless of how they will be received and interpreted. Society and culture is created by communication, as Hunt and Ruben point out. By disregarding the effective and collective creation, distribution and reception of messages, we are destined for a world where no one understands anything. A world without meaning or value. A selfish world.

Microsoft, IBM, AOL and their cohorts like to trumpet the "global village" that computers and the Internet have brought about. Despite their bold headlines and quick-cut video clips, this global village remains the Atlantis of the computer-age. In a village, everyone would find a way to communicate in order to survive, in order to live. We aren't communicating or coming closer as a world; we're sitting alone -- in our underwear, pale and eating Ring Dings -- in front of a gently humming computer, looking at pictures of the world, attempting to communicate with nameless, faceless strangers who are doing the exact same thing. That's not a village; that's solitary confinement.

Rather than flourishing as the pinnacle of interpersonal communication, the Internet has bred impersonal communication by eliminating humanity from the equation. The Internet, named for its idyllic goal of reciprocal, mutual togetherness, should be properly renamed the Extranet for its aptitude for separation, exclusion and isolation.

But this doesn't need to be the end of our communicative nature. Our technological purgatory. As a society we can take responsibility for our actions and the messages we send out into the world. Amazingly, this can be accomplished easily by following traditional rules of communication and by keeping in mind that there is an actual person on the receiving end. A bit of behavior modification and consideration will help the Internet realize its lofty goal and could quite possibly lend a hand in building that global village.

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