The rise of the Internet has been one of the most significant events of the recent past. It has effected society in a massive range of ways, with few people being unaffected by the Internet. The following paper will consider how the Internet has impacted society from a social psychology perspective. With this focus, it will be shown that the Internet has impacted the way people interact with information, has given people greater control over their own lives, has increased the social support available to people, has impacted media and communication, and has created greater censorship issues.
The Internet has resulted in a major change in how people respond and interact with information. Hammerich and Harrison describe the online reader saying,
Online readers are in a big hurry. Research shows that they hop, skip, and jump over text; avoid fluff such as promotional writing, logos, and mission statements; are impatient and goal-driven; and so ruthless that they will leave a site within seconds if it doesn't meet their needs.
These qualities of how people interact are closely linked with the nature of the Internet and the availability of information. There are two crucial points. The first is that the Internet offers an endless array of information. The second is that all this information is available by navigating the various websites where the information is contained. This is different to information that is not part of the Internet because there is not an endless amount of it and because navigating through the information is not as easy. To consider the difference this makes to an individual, consider a person who enters a library to research a certain topic vs. A person who goes online to research a certain topic. In the library, there will be a variety of sources. The person might search in a database or visit a certain section of the library. The information will then be available in front of them. Most importantly, the person will be aware of how much information they have available to them. For example, they may have 10 books on the subject or 50 articles on the subject. Of course, this individual is also aware that the information in front of them is not the only information that exists. They could visit other libraries, search for information in other places, or use different research methods. However, as long as it is convenient to use the information in the library, most people will not concern themselves with the information that is not available to them. Now consider the case of the person researching via the Internet. Unlike the person in the library, they have no measure of how much information there is available. In most cases, it will seem like the information is unlimited. The information will also not be conveniently sorted and able to be found in one place. At the same time, all of the information is accessible via the Internet and so is at the person's fingertips. This makes information practically unlimited, while also not allowing the person any simple way to determine how much information to look for. It is this that influences how people interact with information online. People skim, avoid fluff, and read as if in a hurry because it seems like there is so much to get through. People are also impatient and ruthless for the same reasons. This shows that the Internet impacts how people feel as they interact with it, which in turn influences behavior.
It is also important to note that the way people are influenced by the Internet extends to more than just how people act when online. Neal, Quester, and Hawkins note that the Internet is changing how consumers behave, with the changes applying to how consumers behave in retail environments as well as Internet environments.
In short, people who shop or search for information on products online are learning behavior that they also apply to offline situations. Neal, Quester, and Hawkins refer to the changes as a paradigm shift, effectively changing how people think of themselves as consumers, regardless of the environment they are in.
The changes that are occurring are effectively summarized by Hammerich and Harrison. They describe how consumers are more hurried and quicker to reject products, how consumers are goal-driven and focused on their own needs, and how consumers are less willing to accept products that do not meet their needs.
This occurs because the extent of information on the Internet reminds people of how many possibilities there are. In a consumer buying process, an individual is no longer able to accept that the products in a local store are the only alternatives because the Internet has made them aware that there are endless possibilities. This also applies to many other areas other than consumer buying processes. For example, a person is also more aware of the massive number of job possibilities available and even the massive number of potential partners available. In this way, the Internet expands the number of choices that people are aware of.
The availability of information on the Internet also allows individuals to become better informed. As noted above, the Internet puts information at people's fingertips and gives all people with Internet access equal access to information. This allows people to increase their knowledge and their control over their own lives. For example, the individual looking to purchase a new car or a new home has the ability to research the product thoroughly before making a decision. The individual planning a holiday has the ability to investigate their travel options and make the most right decisions so that their holiday is as enjoyable as possible. The individual considering having an experimental medical procedure done is able to research this procedure to ensure that they are well informed. The individual purchasing an item is able to ask or read other people's opinions on the subject. The individual investing on the stock market is able to research stocks and develop their own portfolio. This puts people more in control of their own lives because the easy access to information makes people less reliant on experts. For the case of the individual investing in stocks, they no longer have to rely on the advice of financial experts. They may still gain the advice of experts, but they also have the ability to research and critique the information they receive. The same applies equally to medical and legal advice. The end result is that people are able to be more informed, more in control, and more independent if they wish.
The Internet is also important because of the access to resources and support it offers. It prevents individuals from being isolated and provides them with interaction and support services. Consider the case of a depressed individual contemplating suicide. Without the Internet, their access to support may be limited. However, with the Internet, they can find somebody to talk to at any time of the day or night. The Internet also offers a variety of support sites for those that need it, whether it be for medical problems, psychological problems, or any other issue. With these types of sites existing, there are no barriers that isolate people. Instead, whatever support or resources an individual needs are always available. This includes support for rare problems and problems that people may be uncomfortable seeking support for. The support for rare problems occurs because the Internet is so broad and connects so many people that someone with almost any type of problem is likely to find a few people with the same problem. The Internet is also a medium with a strong level of anonymity. This results in many people feeling more comfortable admitting problems that they otherwise might not have. The end result is that a social support system exists that is likely to make people feel more connected to others.
Another key social impact of the Internet is related to how it effects communication and the media. It is recognized that communication is essential to a person's role in society. It is by communication that individuals interact with other people, and it is through the media that individuals interact with groups of people and with society as a whole. There are some major differences between traditional news media and Internet media and these have a significant social impact. The first major difference is that the audience is in control. In the traditional media the publication or broadcaster determines what the audience sees. The individual watching the television can only view what the station has decided to broadcast. Similarly, the individual reading the newspaper can only view the stories that have been printed. However, the Internet allows the user to determine what they view. As one author notes, "the media user can acquire control of the information environment."
With the Internet medium, the individual has control over what sites they visit, what information they acquire and who they interact with. Unlike television and radio, the information…