i-17b21aa10085d4dc345da8cdac876a1d-Woman at Computer.jpg
Back in late March, I detailed some of the ways that computers and the Internet had changed my life. I use Google News to check breaking news. I use online services such as Evite to organize face-to-face activities. I communicate with more people through email than by phone or in person. I buy gifts online.

Then I asked you to add your own experiences of how the Internet has changed your life — for good or bad — in an “Open Source Reporting” exercise. The idea was to learn more about how your lives had changed and then report back on what I found.

In general, I would say that the Internet and computers have made your lives more efficient, and saved you time and energy. However, some of you mentioned that because of the Internet, you may be spending less time out in the real world with face-to-face interactions.

Before I get to some of your responses, I want to point you to some relevant research done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Pew found that the Internet is becoming more important in life’s “major moments and milestones.” The survey found that 45% of Internet users, or about 60 million Americans, say the Net helped them make big decisions or get through major episodes in their lives in the past two years.

In comparison to a similar survey Pew Internet did in 2002, more people used the Net for career training, to help make financial decisions, to find out about serious health issues, to find a new place to live, and to learn more about finding a school for themselves or their children.

Unlike the Pew survey topics, many of you focused on how your media lives had changed. Oliver, who blogs at eText from Switzerland, said that he previously subscribed to fanzines, magazines and journals to find out about his niche interests — but now favored online news feeds to stay updated on similar topics.

“There is a positive Long Tail effect — it’s much easier to get acquainted with new subjects/ideas online than it was one or two decades ago,” Oliver wrote. “On the other hand I miss some of the ‘cool places’ I frequented when I was younger…”

Another contributor, John Champagne, also mentioned how the Net had helped keep him informed, especially when it comes to finding academic material. Champagne noted that Amazon and other online services let him read sections of academic articles or books to find out which are relevant before buying or reading them in full.

“Before I had to read volumes of extraneous material before I could find the analysis I needed, relying on library catalogues and brief descriptions to decide where I would spend my time searching,” Champagne wrote.

There’s a trend toward less print material in our lives, and more reading via computers. Angel, who blogs at The Itinerant Librarian, said “I don’t read print newspapers much anymore. That’s what online editions and using [news] feeds is for. There is a lot more information available, but that is a good thing. At least, I think so.”

Bree, who writes the Breebop blog, had a nice list of changes in her life brought on by the Net, from writing her diaries publicly through her blog to communicating with more far-away friends and family. And she makes those communications richer thanks her digital camera and photo-sharing services such as Flickr and Picasa.

“I take many more photographs, and more of my circle sees them,” Bree wrote. “I also get more feedback on photos. It costs me less money in the long run, but more in the short term (SD cards cost more than film, but I don’t need to buy new ones all the time, nor develop them; I only pay to print must-keep photos).”

Madalyn seconded Bree’s experience, using Flickr as a kind of photo diary she could show relatives or people with common interests. Madalyn also mentioned how her iPod and iTunes let her carry around her entire music library cheaply and easily — and making the radio obsolete for her. Plus, she also uses an online dating service.

“I can find people easily who have similar interests,” Madalyn wrote. “I don’t have to go up to strangers; I can get a good sense of what someone’s like before I ever commit to a date. Much more efficient!”

So we have improved efficiency, better communication and more sharing of personal experiences through blogs and photo-sharing sites. But what about work? ptvGuy, who does web development for public TV stations, said that he could now live wherever he wants to work for clients in other physical locations.

“I live where I want to live (surrounded by mountains and national forest) without losing out on employment opportunities,” he wrote. “I work daily with people I’ve never met and yet consider them to be my friends and colleagues. I do a highly technical job out of my home where I’m free to be a major part of my children’s lives. I can’t imagine living the nine-to-five life of the previous generation of fathers.”

I heartily agree on that one. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to work for three months from an island in Thailand, where cybercafes with satellite Internet access helped me work from there while playing with my wife and 7-month-old son on the beach.

If you think that people living their lives online has been a generational experience limited to the youngest folks in our society, think again. Charles Meshel said he’s “past the 80 mark in life” but listed all the ways the computer has changed his life since he started using it three years ago.

“I listen to music far more than I had before,” Meshel wrote. “I view the news, local as well as national and international. I have contact with people throughout the country by email, which I never did before. It is something that from my viewpoint is stimulating, and I sense that it has helped to keep my mind more alert. I am able to research so many things including medical information that would take days to do otherwise, if at all. I heartily recommend use of the computer for all ages.”

I was a bit surprised at how little you all mentioned any downsides to using the Internet — that it might take away from time spent in the company of your friends and family. I think it’s easy for us to get caught up in all the great features, sites and services we find in surfing around the Net, and we don’t always come up for air enough or disconnect to appreciate all the beauty around us.

I want to keep this report open-ended, so if you have more items to share on how the Internet has changed how you live your life, feel free to share in the comments below. I hope to return to this subject at various angles in the months ahead.

[Photo above of woman and cat looking at a laptop by ThomasK]