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Does Web really connect us?<br> Many use Internet to unite with others like them, experts say

The Internet promises to let us connect with a stranger in Tokyo, but in reality we're much more likely to talk to a friend in Tonawanda.

It was viewed as a potentially globalizing tool. But if you look at how users really spend their time online, they interact with people who are a lot like them -- sharing the same ethnicity, hometown or class status.

"I think in part that's just natural human behavior," said Gregory R. Wood, Canisius College associate professor of marketing, who studies how businesses use social media. "Our online behavior tends to reflect, in part, our offline behavior."

Millions of conversations take place on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other websites every day, but most are segregated from the rest. Users talk near, but not with, others unlike them.

Local users say they notice the same pattern in their own online interactions, where they mainly chat with friends from school, or back home, about what's on their mind.

"Sometimes we talk about whatever the trending topic of the day is, or an event that happened," said Ricza Lopez, a media production major at Buffalo State College. "I like Twitter for the entertainment. A lot of people go on there and complain about their lives. It's funny."

Experts say this Internet isolation is a concern because, as the problems we face and the economy become more international in scale, we need to become more global in our outlook.

The way to resolve this issue is to translate more websites into other languages and to find the right guides to nudge us out of our online flocks, advocates say.

"These bridge figures, I'm pretty well convinced, are the future of how we try to make the world wider through using the Web," Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said at a recent Technology Entertainment and Design, or TED, conference.

From the beginning, theorists argued that the Internet had the potential to revolutionize how we communicate by opening up people to new perspectives from across the globe.

But social media drive so much of the online conversation, and the people we talk to through Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites are usually people we've met in our offline lives.

On Twitter, where people send status updates in 140 characters or less, users start out by following people they know.

They expand their Twitter base by following people who write about topics that interest them, while Twitter suggests others to follow based on a user's location or current connections.

New technologies such as Twitter "amplify and extend who we are and our existing tendencies," said Steve Macho, an assistant professor of technology education at Buffalo State.

At noontime one Friday earlier this month, the most-repeated phrases worldwide on Twitter were "firstkiss," which encouraged users to describe their first lip-lock; "ifihadsuperpowers," a more whimsical topic; and "Xiaobo," a reference to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that day.

If you dig down into those conversations, however, you'll see that the people engaging in them for the most part share a common denominator of race or geography or interest.

Zuckerman, in his lecture, said he was surprised to see how many African-Americans use Twitter, which recently did some research on its users.

The service believes 24 percent of American Twitter users are black, about twice their representation in the general population, Zuckerman said. White and black Twitter users aren't talking to each other, however.

Mate Salekovics, a D'Youville College student from Hungary, said he goes online to call friends and family back home, check out news from Hungary and interact with others who study information technology.

He said he doesn't think there's much that would make him change his habits.

"I know many other things are going on online," Salekovics said. "I do what I like."

Digital segregation also occurs in online news.

Google Ad Planner found in June that 99.9 percent of Chinese users, 98 percent of Japanese users and 93.9 percent of American users get their online news from domestic sites.

"We occasionally stumble onto a page in Chinese, and we decide that we do, in fact, have the greatest technology ever built to connect us to the rest of the world, and we forget that most of the time we're checking Boston Red Sox scores," Zuckerman said in his lecture.

Beginning in 2008, researchers noticed a trend of users seeking out websites that have an explicit point of view, and one that reinforces their own views, Aaron W. Smith, a senior research specialist with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, told The Buffalo News.

Smith isn't convinced the Internet is totally to blame.

"Is this a symptom of the broader polarization we've seen in the political world?" he asked.

Others argue the Internet has changed how we consume news, making it more interactive, and the medium is filled with information that can challenge a belief system. Liberals can visit the Drudge Report, for example, and conservatives may stop by Huffington Post.

"The key point is, I have to want to do that. It is there," said Wood, the Canisius professor.

People employ different media -- TV, radio, print and online -- to get their news, and on the Internet they "forage broadly" and rely on friends to fill in what they missed, Smith said.

But these are people you already have something in common with, so they are sending you links to issues that you might already know about.

Jeffrey J. McConnell, a Canisius computer science professor, laments that we don't just stumble across things anymore because we're always directed exactly where to go.

The search engines powered by Google, Microsoft and other high-tech heavyweights don't encourage the kind of pleasant meandering that happens when we go to a library or look up a word in a dictionary.

Data showing the most popular search terms in a particular country or community shows how inwardly focused we are.

Buffalonians using Google over the 30 days ending Friday to look up news or current events most often searched for the terms "news," "buffalo news," "wgrz" and "wivb," with "channel 2" and "channel 4" also high on the list, according to Google's Insights for Search.

Is this insularity bad? "[The Internet] helps us to not feel isolated as individuals," McConnell said. "It can be bad because we don't get a chance to find out what's going on beyond our small world. It still is a very narrowly focused interaction."

Zuckerman suggests following well-placed, internationally oriented guides who can point Internet users to ideas and people and places they otherwise might never have found.

Lopez, the Buffalo State senior, is a music buff, and this is a popular topic among her friends on Twitter. "Not only do we talk about music that we are into, but also music from other regions that I am not from, such as Africa, Europe and the Caribbean," she said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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