In our second Intro to Digital Communications class, we went into small breakout groups to discuss the meaning and function of the Internet. The Internet was originally established to allow individuals in the military and academia world to collect and share information from a distributed network, which, in simpler terms, means that if any connection breaks, information can be rerouted and transferred to where it needs to go with zero interruption in the network. With that crash course of a history lesson aside, one of the key themes in my group discussion was the social impact of the Internet. In answer to “What are the functions of the Internet as a communication tool [today]?,” my group agreed that we can now connect with anyone from anywhere in the world at any time via audio and video conferencing tools such as Google Hangouts and Skype; we can entertain ourselves and share it with our network (think cat videos and funny memes); and we’re able to multi-task—talk to friends, keep tabs on people we know, browse news and gossip columns—with ease and flexibility.
While the Internet has transformed from an information-sharing system to a powerful communication tool, there still exists disadvantages—one being the way in which the Internet eliminates in-person interactions. In our four-person group alone, three out of four students say they rely on Internet apps and instant messaging clients (like Google chat) to talk to co-workers and managers instead of talking to them in person. One of my peers said many employees at her company hide behind their computers, which may contribute to the reason why they struggle with face-to-face communication and socializing. This small observation signifies the shift in our current needs and values. Ten years ago, virtual meetings were uncommon and frequently frowned upon, but now, virtual meetings taking place more frequently in the workplace (in Forbes’ “Telecommuting is the Future of Work” article, writer Meghan Biro says 30 to 45 percent of the company employees she partners with work remotely). In addition, world-class educational institutions are leveraging the Internet’s function as a communication tool to offer students an education that mirrors the brick-and-mortar classroom curriculum. U.S. News & World Report launched its first set of online education program rankings in 2012, for example, due to the more than 5 million online students that existed during that time. And that number continues to grow.
When thinking about how the Internet has changed since its inception in the late 1960s, I can’t help but notice one glaring (and relatively new) Internet feature that has sparked progressive change in business, education, science, and entertainment: the social component. The Internet is no longer just a primary resource where we collect and search for information. The Internet is now a platform for us to connect, communicate, live update and socialize. Facebook connects 1.3 billion people in more than 70 languages and crowdfunding site Kickstarter has funded more than 60,000 creative projects and users have pledged $1 billion dollars (and counting!) since it was established in 2009. Amazon started out as an online book store in 1995. Fast forward 20 years later, Amazon is the leading e-commerce site, surpassing Walmart in both profit and popularity.
So, whats ahead? We discussed Web 3.0 also known as the “Semantic Web,” which is the concept of all online information being part of a database where everything is connected and categorized in ways that are meaningful to us. As explained in the 10th edition of Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age text, “Search engines of today generate relevant Web pages for us to read, [but] the software of the Semantic Web will make our lives even easier as it places the basic information…into meaningful categories—family, friends, calendars, mutual interests, location—and makes significant connections for us. The text provides more concrete examples: Think Siri on Apple devices and the Siemens refrigerator that takes a snapshot of the inside of the fridge each time you close the door. Web 3.0 is the current Internet—updated. Web 3.0 will be more personalized, maybe even grossly convenient. 20 years from now, I anticipate we’ll be so incredibly reliant on the Internet and electronic functionalities (yes, even moreso than we are now), that no one will think of the Internet as a separate entity in any way. It’ll be so intertwined with our way of life—it’ll become our life, our air, our only way to function in society.
Some may argue it’s for the best and these changes will lead to a smarter, more innovative world population, while others will look back with nostalgia and wish there was a way to turn off the Internet for just a day. Which group will you be part of when the Internet goes through another transformation?