Study: Internet Users Aren't Isolated (Thank Facebook)

Internet users are not as isolated as sociologists thought, but we've known that all along. Rather than isolating Americans, a new study finds the Internet broadens our social circle, and Facebook gets particular credit.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that "Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported. People's use of the mobile phone and the Internet is associated with larger and more diverse discussion networks."

That seems so obvious, was there ever really a question? Yes, and it was widely reported just three years ago. If you think back, you may remember it.

Here's the backstory: A 2006 study argued that over the previous two decades Americans had become more socially isolated. The study found that the size of our discussion networks had declined, as well as the diversity of people with whom we discussed important topics. It also found a decrease in neighborhood ties.

The 2006 study went on to discuss the negative impact of various technologies that Internet junkies hold dear, including--scandal!--our mobile phones.

Maybe the 2006 study was true at the time, but for many Internet users--myself included--its does not feel true today. Rather, the Internet, and social networks in particular, have broadened our networks considerably.

Here is what the Pew study has to say:

"When we examine people's full personal network--their strong and weak ties--Internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with more diverse social networks."

There you have it: The Facebook effect. It was not until Sept. 2006 that Facebook was open to everyone without requiring an invitation, so the 2006 study covered the last 20 years of the B.F. (before Facebook) era.

The new Pew study, conducted merely three years A.F. (after Facebook) finds Internet users interacting, increasing their social ties, and gives Facebook significant credit. (Facebook is the Google of social networks, according to recent stats).

Not all the credit goes the Facebook and not all the news is good. The Pew study finds that our social networks have indeed shrunk since the mid-1980's, but that the Internet improves the situation, not worsens it as previously thought.

"We confirm that Americans' discussion networks have shrunk by about a third since 1985 and have become less diverse because they contain fewer non-family members," the Pew study found.

"However, contrary to the considerable concern that people's use of the Internet and cell phones could be tied to the trend towards smaller networks, we find that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of Internet activities are associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks."

Further, frequent Internet users and people who maintain blogs are more likely to "confide in someone of a different race" while those who share photos online are more likely to have discussions with someone of a different political party.

A case can be made that those results come because people who do those things on the Internet would be more likely to have diverse social networks regardless. Still, I know from experience that social networks--Facebook in particular--make those interactions easier. (My own Facebook page is an example).

My take: I think there remains a difference between, say, people who'd read this blog and typical Internet users. Social networks, particularly Facebook, are closing that gap. While Internet pioneers (that's us) have always used our computers to broaden our circles, it has taken a while for Internet consumers to catch up.

Yes, there does seem to be a trend toward smaller social networks, in some contexts, but my own experience and some of the Pew survey findings say this is changing. I hope another study will be conducted 3-5 years from now. (Social networks are poised for growth as the economy improves, a top industry analyst says).

By then we may see everyone's social networks actually increasing, though they will be different networks in the A.F. era than what we had before Facebook and other social networks opened our lives.

You can read the Pew study online or download it as an 84-page PDF. It contains much more interesting information than I can possibly present here. Moreover, I thank the non-profit Pew Research Center for the wonderful work it does in a number of areas, all aimed at helping Americans better understand themselves.

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

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