Internet and the hypersocial individual

Internet is already quite an old invention but we can say it became really a general public thing circa 1996. Ten years is both little time and ages in the field of technology. Being 10 years old, the Internet has already gone through more than one adolescence crisis. Born in the spirit of a free sharing of knowledge, the Web first meant free access to information, just like an Alexandria library that could be reached from any place in the world. Around 1998 – 1999, merchants came and invaded this temple of Knowledge. That was the time of the « new economy » and e-commerce. Many would-be king-of-the-world went high (figuratively speaking of course) then but when the bubble burst they woke up in a painful way. Yet, the Internet survived and we have been seeing a new phenomenon for the past few months : the social Internet, meaning a network that does not only build links between HTML pages but also between people.

Part of that trend, blogs have made publication on the Internet as easy as A-B-C. True conversations take place and when bloggers react to other people’s articles through comments and trackbacks, they learn to know each other. Lots of bloggers also like gathering in the real world in an informal way. Attending such a meeting in Paris, I was surprised to see that people who had never met before seemed to know each other quite well, just because they read one another’s blogs. In the same fashion, social networks aiming at connecting their members (be it for professional purposes, to make new friends or meet that special someone) still increase this cyber-sociability. Another example is the number of virtual communities that can be found on the Web, including newsgroups and wikis.

In other words, the social arenas of the individual tend to multiply due to the Internet. One can roughly divide people in three groups. The « traditional » individual sends e-mails to people he/she already knows, uses instant messaging or VoIP softwares such as MSN or Skype to get in touch with his friends and family. For him, the Web is just another way to communicate with his acquaintances in the physical world. A second group includes Web surfers regularly taking part in newsgroups, visiting chat rooms, using pseudos, who learnt how to manage a virtual identity different of their physical identity. Finally, the third group is that of hypersocial individuals. They have regular relations with people they have never met physically. They are bloggers, members of FOAF networks (Friend-Of-A-Friend networks, such as LinkedIn or Friendster) and interact with their virtual and physical worlds in various ways. In some cases, their digital and physical identities can be the same (for instance wiki addicts contributing with their real name), in other instances they will be different (utilization of pseudos) ; sometimes they will meet their virtual connections in the physical world and in other circumstances they will keep both worlds separate, etc. These people have developed skills enabling them to play with their various social levels at will.

Of course, this hypersociability raises many issues. How to draw the line between your private life and your public life ? Can you have enough time to effectively manage all these social levels ? Who are you close to, in the end ?

In this environment, we are all learning and teaching one another, in a new world we are both discovering and building at the same time. Some say : « may you live in interesting times ». Well, current times are not too bad, in this respect, are they ?

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