Internet helps, not hinders, social networks

socializeNew communications technologies, such as the Internet and mobile phones, have not made people less social, according to a study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. While the number of people the average person interacts with has declined, the internet isn’t necessarily the cause, and the theory that social isolation has tripled in the past 25 years appears to be unfounded, according to the study.

Indeed, it finds that those who engage in online discussion have broader social horizons. The study found that people who write blogs or post pictures online are much more likely to form close bonds with people of a different racial background or holding different political views to themselves.

The report claims to prove that internet use does not deter people from going out into the real world, noting that 38% of individuals who’ve been to a library in the past month have gone online, as have 18% of coffee shop visitors. That’s an odd argument, as by definition, net-addicted hermits won’t show up in these figures.

The results of the study show that using the internet regularly doesn’t make much difference either way to how active a person is in their local community. Despite the global nature of the web, the study found that social contact with other people online is just as likely to be with people who are nearby as it is to be with people further afield.

Internet use doesn’t appear to change how many close friends a user regularly sees face to face. However, once you take account of “weak ties” (people you keep in contact with but aren’t necessary close friends), use of sites such as Facebook greatly increases both the size and diversity of a user’s social network.

And while the internet extends the range of people that a user is in contact with, it doesn’t change the way they communicate with their closest friends and family. Among this “core network”, face-to-face contact is still by far the most common method, almost three times as common as any online communication.

One of the most interesting theory thrown up by the report is that the “internet users/socially isolated” link may be a false correlation. It suggests that people in their early 20s working their first job and living away from home for the first time (other than in college dorms) are inherently less likely to have geographically close friends, simply because they haven’t had time to establish social ties with neighbors or work colleagues. The fact that these people are also more likely to be regular internet users is not necessarily related.