Social Benefits of the Internet

One of the reasons I want to be a librarian is the idea of helping people. I know that libraries have an incredible ability to grant even the most isolated individuals essential information, community, recreation, and art. By providing equal access to a wide variety of information, libraries enrich lives and open realms of possibilities for its users.

I view the internet as a global, all-encompassing library. Users can come, spend hours, go wherever they want, create, debate, be active or passive, seek out information to their heart’s content, and talk to anybody, anywhere in the world. I romantize, I know. But the social benefits of the internet, especially for marginalized individuals are enormous with the proper education and access.

In his beautifully insightful Atlantic article, Dr. Vannevar Bush looked forward to the potential of humanity in wake of electronic systems that could store and categorize the sum of human knowledge. His visionary description of the Memex is the equivelant to today’s computer and internet network that allows us to store, share and contribute to a total body of knowledge. Amazing. What he didn’t entirely envision, and what makes it even better, are the new channels of communication that have been opened up.

In “Social Implications of the Internet”, the authors point out that not nearly enough research has been performed to determine the effects of Internet use on social capital or behaviour. There is still much to be learned about how communities form and function on the internet (DiMaggio, et al, 2001). Even most of the studies cited are now over ten years old, before the rise of social media sites like Twitter and Internet-enabled mobile devices.

The reality is, however, that online communities exist. Relationships are formed over the internet, and information is shared. These communities are especially important for those who feel isolated and marginalized.

Faith Cheltenham writes about the vast importance of the internet in giving her validation and connection to her sexual identity. With Google blocking the search term bisexual from its autocomplete feature, she argues, the company is denying information and community to a group of frequently overlooked and marginalized people. The thousands of search results Google indexed are a valuable way for her to connect with resources and people that accept her sexual orientation.

How societies will reap the full benefits of the internet and maximize its utility still remain to be seen.  In “The Social Implications of the Internet” the authors emphasize that as much as society may depend on the internet, the evolution of the internet depends on society. It will be important for individuals, groups, nations and institutions to continue research and to develop resources/technology that connect people in meaningful ways. Policies about internet equality, privacy, and intellectual will determine much of this.

I believe that librarians have a great role to play in shaping the role of the internet in society. Libraries must be advocates for the social benefits of the internet, educate society and politicians, design or advise on the design of search engines, technology and software that serves the public’s interests. Public librarians will instruct individuals with new technologies, and have valuable front-line knowledge to share with other information professionals. Working with the public, they will have  a sense of user’s needs, and a keen awareness of groups that are lacking information resources.

These issues are current and timely. As the internet evolves, our society shapes it to our own ends and purposes. The public librarian should serve as an authoritative and knowing voice in this aspect of the internet that has been relatively unexamined. I hope that our profession takes an active role and is proactive in creating social benefits. We need more visionaries like Dr. Vannevar Bush who believe that the ultimate end of technology is the betterment of society through sharing human experience and knowledge.

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