Let me take you back in time a few years, when an ever-so-slightly-younger Hobbes was exploring and enjoying a relatively new and increasingly-popular purveyor of information and entertainment: the Internet!
I would quite often visit the chat rooms offered by my ISP, and converse with total strangers about whatever topic came up. Sometimes discussion would move into private messages, and new online friendships would form - some of which still exist today. Although, at that time, I personally didn't meet up with these people (instead keeping them as solely online friends), I knew plenty of other people that did - and regularly - thus moving the relationship into the 'real world' as well.
Equally, online forums (such as our beloved Matazone) were frequented in order to engage in discussions with like-minded people, and new friendships would be formed and cultivated through the board and via other private means. Again, there would often be the opportunity to meet up, and so perhaps solidifying the friendship in a 'real world' context. Similarly, I didn't do this myself at the time, but I know a lot of people that did.
Alongside the fear that meeting up with someone might result in being chopped to death by them, there was also a fair amount of reports in the media of how the Internet was actually detrimental to a person's ability to socialise. Ignoring the opportunities to meet up with the onliners, the notion was that time spent chatting online with people reduced an individual's time for meeting and talking to people face-to-face (i.e. chat room vs. the pub/a local club/etc.). It was also cited that too much time spent socialising in an online form could affect a person's ability to socialise effectively in 'reality'.
Many would argue against this, due to amount of new relationships they formed online, but the debate existed...
Now, let's pop back in my time-machine and skip to the present. Please make sure you bring all belongings!
If I now make the attempt to pop into an online chat room offered by my ISP, or on various websites, I struggle to find one that actually contains anybody to talk to. In my opinion, the traditional chat room is dead. If you want to throw yourself amongst a group of strangers online in the hope of finding someone worthy of your time, this no longer seems to be an option. IRC can offer something akin to what you might be looking for (although user numbers have been dwindling in the last five years), but it is no longer a 'standard' upon the Internet and the vast majority of new users are probably not familiar with it.
Many of the popular forums and message boards are also seeing a reduction in numbers. As the number of visitors lessen, so do the number of posts, which makes the board become stagnant and 'out-of-date', and therefore discourages new people from joining. Finding a lively forum with the right amount of activity is, as far as I can see, quite a bit harder than it used to be. The semi-techy alternative, Usenet newgroups, is barely spoken of anymore (one of the initial and largest servers that gave birth to Usenet - Duke University - decommisioned its server this year) and although the content has seen year-on-year increase (in filesize/MB), this is due to far more automated spam and larger files being hosted (i.e. HD movie files). So... forums no longer seem ideal for new online socialising....
However, there is one particular area of the Internet that has increasing numbers of users.
I think it is a fairly reasonable for me to make the generalisation that everybody is on Facebook. There's been similar sites before, there's alternatives now, and no doubt something superior will turn up in the future. But the likes of MySpace, Bebo, and Facebook all effectively offer the same kind of thing - what is now commonly referred to as 'social networking'.
Yay! People are now staying in touch with all their current and old friends, sharing their news and photographs, finding the people that they once knew. Hurrah for online socialisation once more. It would seem that Facebook (and its brothers) may be the cause for there being less people using chat and forums now. People have moved on to something new and different.
But... how many new relationships are formed ON Facebook? Sure, we add all our friends, find a few from 'the old days', and keep in touch to some extent (another relevant argument here would be whether the odd comment or status update actually equates to socialising with people). But I would say that it is very rare for a Facebook user to "Request a Friend" of someone they don't already know. There are groups to join and pages to 'like' so that we may express our shared interests, but there's not really a decent way to converse with the unknown people that also enjoy our chosen hobby/celebrity/favourite biscuit.
So, Facebook - arguably the prime form of online communication - gives us a decent means for maintaining our current friendships. But, does it offer us much to create new ones... actually preventing us from increasing our social circle? Does modern social networking services now cause social stagnation, in regards to opening up the opportunity for talking to NEW people?
P.S. sorry about the length of this post