Iowa State University journalism director analyzes today's brave, new relationships

AMES, Iowa -- A recent study by the Internet tracking firm Hitwise found that the online social network has become the country's most popular Web site, accounting for 4.46 percent of all Internet visits in the U.S. during the week ending July 8. A Duke University study also recently reported that Americans have fewer close, personal friends than they used to.

Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University and author of the book "Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age" (Oxford University Press, 2005), believes the two studies are interrelated.

Bugeja recently hosted an online chat session focusing on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites for the National Association for Campus Activities. He will moderate a related panel titled "Facing the Facebook: Administrative Issues Involving Social Networks" this Wednesday, Aug. 2, at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

He has identified five reasons for today's "interpersonal divide":

1. Media systems change value systems

"We yearn for acceptance and routinely look to media and technology to bridge the interpersonal void," said Bugeja. "Electronic communication promised to enhance relationships with family and friends, to increase productivity at work, and to provide us with more leisure time at home. Instead, our personal and professional relationships often falter because communication systems alter value systems, with the primary emphasis on profit and entertainment."

"Meanwhile, television viewing devours leisure time," he said. "Consequently the search for acceptance is apt to be done sitting down in front of screens and monitors. That undermines the vitality of community where values -- from civility to trustworthiness -- are developed through face-to-face interaction. Even networks of virtuous individuals, when isolated, cannot advance civic virtue. People deprived of interpersonal contact eventually suspect rather than trust others because their perception of reality has been skewed, prompting misinterpretation of messages and motives, thereby harming relationships."

2. Time spent with gadgets rather than friends

"Add to TV and PC use telephones with separate lines and caller identification, 'family' cell phones with myriad speed dialing functions, answering machines, laptops, Web and video cameras, Internet stations, security and video monitors, motion detectors, hand-held devices (from Palm Pilots to GameBoys), gaming consoles, DVD and MP3 players, CD stereo systems, wave radios, cable and satellite access, and more," he said. "People who use these gadgets and consume these services in their homes are spending more time apart from each other and their friends and neighbors. Then they go to work and use the same gadgets again. Then they become depressed because of work-related stress or family-related dysfunction and seek self-improvement -- again using the same appliances and services that are the source of their problems, listening to inspirational videos or visiting Web sites instead of resolving issues interpersonally, face-to-face."

3. Friendships and digital displacement

"We live now in cabled enclaves," Bugeja said. "Too many of us feel anxious not because we fail to communicate -- for we do communicate too frequently with each other electronically -- but because of fundamental high-tech fallacies. Many consumers buy technology because they believe it saves time and improves communication with friends. Such beliefs are suspect."

4. Accumulated effect of mediated communication on friendships

"We are seldom out of touch with anyone anywhere anymore," he said. "An electronic gadget or portable computer is usually within reach. Many individuals enjoy instantaneous access to family, friends and colleagues and yet, despite such contact, feel a void in their lives. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, some of us are losing the ability to interact meaningfully with others -- face-to-face -- because we opt for on-demand rather than physical contact, relying on technology to mediate our thoughts, words, and deeds. And we pay a price, not only in access fees but in feelings."

5. Squandered time and friendships

"We are squandering more of our lives chatting, surfing, or interacting idly with others, all of which tends to homogenize important relationships and shorten attention spans," said Bugeja. "We visit home pages rather than homes, and convince ourselves that we are interacting responsibly with family and friends simply because we are keeping up with their lives. We marvel at the convenience of digital technology, remembering how time-consuming it was to pen letters, develop snapshots, or see relatives during holidays and vacations."

"And yet, in scrap and holy books of Baby Boomers, are yellowed letters with black-and-white photographs of grandparents and ancestors -- precious as time itself -- marked not only by the passage of time but also by the authenticity of handwriting and stationery," he said. "The children of Baby Boomers will have email and pixels, for they have been taught to elevate convenience, which technology can provide, over substance, which it cannot."

Bugeja joined with fellow ISU journalism professor Eric Abbott and two research associates to author a research paper titled "Facebook Me! The Social Divide Between Student and Main Line Newspapers," one of the top three papers being presented at this week's Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Annual Meeting in San Francisco meeting in San Francisco. It is one of 10 papers that faculty and graduate students from ISU's Greenlee School are presenting at that meeting.