The accusations are familiar: The Internet is making us sad. The Internet is making us lazy. The Internet is making us lonely.
Pew has taken all of those ideas head-on with a new study, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives” — the first national, representative survey of American adults on their use of social networking sites. Pew interviewed 2,255 of those American adults, 1,787 of them Internet users, between late October and late November of 2010; the survey group included 975 users of social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The survey builds on Pew’s 2009 report on technology and isolation, which found that, while there’s been a correlative decline in the size and diversity of people’s closest relationships since the advent of digital technology, the decline hasn’t been caused (whew!) by the Internet.
And today’s findings corroborate that. Americans’ use of social networks has nearly doubled since 2008, Pew notes, and “there is little validity to concerns that people who use SNS experience smaller social networks, less closeness, or are exposed to less diversity,” its report concludes. Furthermore: “The likelihood of an American experiencing a deficit in social support, having less exposure to diverse others, not being able to consider opposing points of view, being untrusting, or otherwise being disengaged from their community and American society generally is unlikely to be a result of how they use technology, especially in comparison to common predictors.”
Overall, then, compared with non-Internet users, Facebookers are 5.89 times more likely to have attended a political meeting, 2.79 times more likely to talk to another person about voting, and 2.19 times more likely to report having actually voted.
While it’s still legitimate, I think, to wonder how the structures of social networks play out on the broader cultural level, it’s increasingly clear that our early dystopian fears of an Internet of Isolation are largely unfounded. We may be bowling alone, yes — but we’re also doing a lot of other things together, as a community, online and off.