Electronic communication began hundreds of years ago with technologies that today seem rudimentary--the telegraph, Morse code and, eventually, the telephone. Electronic communication has grown more in the past few decades than it did during the past few centuries, expanding its scope and reach to include new participants from around the world and provide new ways of communicating, along with new risks and drawbacks.
The Convenience Factor
Issues of convenience drive the popularization of new methods of electronic communication. As telephones and fax machines were supplemented by the Internet and cell phones, communication became faster and more readily available. The Internet is notable for allowing the transmission of visual data, as well as text and voice, nearly instantly. The amount of information available on the Internet continues to grow as users create and maintain content that exists side by side with professionally produced content. Broadband connections are made available in even developing countries and wireless technology makes the Internet available in places never thought possible. All of these technologies are in some way superior to the earlier forms of communication they replace. E-mail is instant, whereas mailing a letter takes days. Television is not interactive but web video content is highly customizable and online gaming is popular. Electronic books take up no space and may be available at little cost, as opposed to traditional print media, which can seem expensive and bulky by comparison.
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Electronic communication also opens lines of communication to individuals who would otherwise live in relative isolation. This increased access is visible in countries where land-line telephones have been skipped over in the process of technological evolution; many Africans own cell phones that are the first phones they have ever had. Mobile devices serve the needs and lifestyles of people who might otherwise never have been able to communicate with people outside the limits of their region. In academics, students from around the world can maintain contact via e-mail, sharing their work and bringing a degree of equity to universities regardless of their physical size or location. Collaboration in the arts and sciences has also benefited greatly from cheap and easy communication.
Networking and Sociability
The social elements of electronic communication cannot be overstated and are today a major subject in studies of American lifestyles and popular trends. Social networking has gone through several distinct phases, growing with each new wave of Internet users. Today, worldwide networks bring together people who share interests but may have never met. Likewise, popular youth-oriented social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter allow people to carry on friendships over long distances. The rise of sociable media has radically altered not only the way people communicate, but the way they relate to one another and even how they view themselves. For sociologists, behavioral psychologists and cultural critics this represents an important area of study.
Of great significance to popular media and commercial interests is the rapid sharing of trends that occurs via electronic communication. The ease with which content can be shared online means that fads and trends are seldom as localized as they once were. Such movements do not need to wait for the physical movement of people to spread; instead, millions of users all around the world can be made aware of them immediately. This includes news, which has also tended more toward a global bent with less local coverage even from local news agencies. For users, electronic communication allows for the dissemination of content far and wide at little or no cost. This means that local artists, musicians and writers can share their work by marketing themselves in a format that is easily accessible to anyone. While this has resulted in a deluge of user-created content online, it has also necessitated the filters and new processes by which that content is evaluated, rated and bought or sold.
Privacy and Security
For all of its advantages, electronic communication carries with it several dangerous aspects. Privacy and security have been concerns of the users of electronic communication since the days of the telegraph. In the Internet age, all data transmitted electronically must pass through a series of stages at which it could potentially be intercepted by a third party. The convenience of doing business online--in the form on online banking, stock trading and shopping--has forced businesses to invent security measures that breed at least some level of confidence in their customers. Still, cases of identity-theft number in the thousands each year, and the risks of breaches of privacy are a major concern to many parents whose children communicate electronically. Cybercrime represents a significant threat to economic interests and Internet-based espionage has been the target of special security programs enacted by most governments and large businesses around the world. Still, electronic communication continues to flourish despite these risks, partially because of the huge investments that have been made into minimizing them.