The Pew Internet and American Life Project has published a new paper about the effect of the internet on social ties.
In my own MPhil thesis, I looked at the implications of internet use upon one’s friendships and pre-existing communities. Back then (1999) a lot of people thought that the internet would destroy pre-existing “offline” communities, primarily because observations of some early adopters, and hype surrounding the internet itself, suggested that people who used the internet and, in particular, participated in online gaming became “addicted”. That is, spending time online was thought to make users increasingly distant from their neighbours and friends. My data seemed to show almost the exact opposite, with people using the internet to actually increase the number and strength of offline social ties.
This most recent study from Pew, The Strength of Internet Ties, is yet more evidence that the internet actually increases the strength, number and depth of one’s social ties. In particular, the study found that many people turn to the internet at times of crisis as a way of finding the support they need from friends, family and contacts.
The report talks about the rise of “networked individualism” which Sociologist Barry Wellman, co-author of the report and whose work I highly recommend for those not familiar with it, told the BBC: “creates a new basis for community. Rather than relying on a single community for social support, individuals often actively seek out a variety of appropriate people and resources for different situations.”