Does YouTube make people into exhibitionists? Does Facebook stunt teenagers’ social skills? Does 43Things help people realize their dreams?

Journalists, academics and web surfers have been arguing over whether the Internet is Ultimate Good or Ultimate Evil long before the social web (a.k.a. “web 2.0”) came along. But blogs, social networks and other kinds of online communities have raised the stakes and intensified the debate. Social web sites are more intensively interactive, and more socially connected, so they offer users an experience that is potentially more compelling (or in the view of Internet skeptics, distracting/disengaging) and (in the view of Internet boosters) more elevating, because they realize the Internet’s potential for forging and deepening interpersonal and community connectedness.

As online community strategists we spend a lot of time thinking about the Internet’s impact at this level: the meta level of community design and planning. We try to create sites, tools and communities that deepen community members’ connection to one another, that offer meaningful outlets for expression and conversation, and that build social capital. We think about communities as whole systems, and try to create conditions to make those systems socially constructive.

But I recently read a book that inspired me to think about how individuals can shape the social impact of the Internet. The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist, looks at money as a social system, and suggests how each of us can transform our relationship to that system, and our relationship to money itself, by acting with integrity in all aspects of our relationship to money — whether it’s in how we earn it, spend it, or give it. It’s a book with a profound and powerful vision for social change, and an equally profound vision for personal change, both of which can be accessed and catalyzed through our individual mindset and actions in relation to money.

The moment I finished reading Twist’s book, I saw that her perspective on money — that each of us must “be the change we wish to see in the world “, in Gandhi’s words — applies equally to the Internet. Twist writes that “money is like water. It can be a conduit for commitment, a currency of love.” I would say say that the Internet, too, is like water: we can direct its flow towards our most craven instincts (spam, porn, gambling) or towards our vision of what the world can be like (online volunteering, e-giving, digital art).

The Internet may not yet be quite as pervasive or all-encompassing as money. But as it structures or touches more and more of lives — our personal and professional communications, our ways of meeting or staying in touch with people, our financial, information and sexual transactions, our creative outlets and our entertainment consumption — our relationship to the Internet becomes a powerful expression of our personal and social values, and a crucial opportunity for both personal and social change.

Just as the soul of money, or the role of money in the world, is the product of individual decisions as well as systemic forces, the soul of the Internet can be shaped by how we individually engage with the online sphere. Whether the Internet alienates and isolates us, or connects and enriches us, is not just determined by web developers and social media strategists.

The social value of the Internet is determined by how each and every one of us uses the Internet as a communications medium, social space and support tool. How we experience the Internet in our daily lives — whether we experience it as a dehumanizing void in which e-mail replaces face-to-face interaction, or as a meaningful community in which we discover new commonalities and connections — is a choice we make every day, with every message we send or browser page we load. Those choices can add up to personal and social alienation, or personal and social transformation.

What kinds of choices can create a relationship to the Internet that supports positive personal and social change? Let me propose a starter list of principles:

  • Give your attention to sites, people and organizations that reflect your true values. When I talked about the Soul of Money with my husband, he summed up his own approach to values-based spending with the following: “every dollar you spend on something is a vote to have more of that thing in the world”. On the Internet, every page you load is a vote to have more of that kind of content, or more of that kind of interaction. That doesn’t mean a diet of digital granola: you can have your virtual froot loops, too. But try redirecting your video surfing to indie films instead of gossip clips, or sending a personal hello instead of a generic Facebook poke.
  • Find love online. Love online can’t be relegated to We need to bring the very highest qualities of empathy, respect and affection to our online interactions…in as many contexts as possible. The Buddhist practice of metta — meditation to foster loving kindness in ourselves and the world — counsels us to begin by meditating with love towards ourselves, our family, and our dearest friends, and gradually expand that attitude of love to encompass a larger and larger circle, and eventually the world.We can use the Internet to entrench and amplify our confrontational and hostile social dynamics. Or we can make our online interactions a practice in loving kindness by approaching each online interaction, even writing each e-mail message, as if it were an affectionate encounter with a dear friend. Yes, we need to be sensibly discreet and protective in an environment that is currently rampant with abuse, fraud and predation — but caution can co-exist with connection, and even hostility can be met with empathy and kindness. Indeed, with the amount of time we now spend online, we can’t afford to spend it in a mindset of suspicion; we must find ways of experiencing our online hours as a practice in forging and deepening relationships.
  • Let down your guard. We live in a fairly guarded society. From locked doors and car alarms to invitation-only parties and call screening, our physical spaces and social practices often serve to keep people out rather than bring them in. The anonymity of the Internet, and many of the emergent pathologies that anonymity makes possible, have led many Internet users to be even more guarded online than they are in their offline lives. Guarded equals disconnected; every wall we put up makes it harder to discover new people, ideas or experiences.But anonymity affords a certain kind of safety, too: a safety in which new levels of candor and connectedness can thrive. Indeed, if you talk to people who enjoy spending a lot of time online, they will often tell you how much they treasure anonymity (or degrees thereof) because it frees them to have honest conversations or forge deep friendships in the absence of superficial social judgements. Experiment to find out whether your truest self emerges from anonymity, or from disclosure. Embrace the Internet as a place where you can be more honest (but with kindness) or more transparent (but with some discretion) and thus experience a new kind of social intimacy. Put more of yourself out there, and let in more of other people by absorbing other people’s blog posts, videos, photos and ideas without the social filters that often shape our in-person perceptions of others. Personal transparency builds interpersonal trust, and interpersonal trust builds social capital.
  • Give as good as you get. There’s a reason a lot of people describe social media or Web 2.0 as “user-contributed media”. A lot of the sites you now enjoy — whether it’s Flickr, YouTube or Boing Boing — are driven by regular folks (or at least, one-time regular folks). That spirit of contribution is the cultural shift that we need social media to nurture; to transform us from a disconnected culture of passive TV consumers to an awake and alive community of creative expression. So don’t engage with the Internet as a passive consumer: embrace and nurture the spirit of expressive and contribution by participating actively yourself.
  • Fuse the power of money and technology. The soul of the Internet is not just analogous to the soul of money; they’re interconnected. The Internet is our bank, our shopping mall, our charity box. Taking our financial transactions, shopping and giving online is an opportunity to transform our dysfunctional experiences on those fronts into more meaningful and effective interventions. You can shop at Etsy instead of Overstock, or supplement habitual workplace charitable giving with personal investments on Kiva.

I expect that these principles will feel most alien, and most challenging, to people who currently experience the Internet through a filter of mistrust, hostility or simple frustration. Many of the people who talk to me about their concerns about the Internet are people who are passionate about our very fragile and very beautiful offline world, and see the Internet as a distraction from the real-world relationships and challenges that need our attention.

But these — you! — are the people who most need to shift their approach to online interaction towards a paradigm that is both personally and socially productive. The Internet is too powerful and too pervasive to be left as the province of people who don’t need or value interpersonal conection. Every online encounter that dispenses with personal affection in favour of brusque efficiency or places self-protection ahead of empathy for others, pushes the Internet towards an online culture that is as pathological as our worst offline moments.

The answer, both personally and socially, is to consciously embrace the Internet as a new frontier for community and connection. The Internet can be abandoned to those who see only its commercial opportunities. Or the soul of the Internet can be forged, and found, by those of us who care about the quality of human connection and community.

If you believed the soul of the Internet was crucial to the future of our planet, how would that affect the way you spend your time online?

What principles guide your use of the Internet — and what principles would you suggest for others?