This new report just out from the Pew Internet & American Life Project: The Strength of Internet Ties, by John Horrigan, Jeffrey Boase, Lee Rainie, and Barry Wellman. It calls into question previous fears that social relationships and community are fading away in the Internet age. Instead, it is the very nature of the contemporary community that is changing. We’re moving away from neighborhood-based groups and toward geographically dispersed networks of common interest and communities of choice. Our personal networks continue to include substantial numbers of relatives and neighbors, the traditional bases of community. But friends, workmates, and a variety of new types of virtual associates are playing a growing role in our personal online networks. The authors conclude that:
The internet and e-mail play an important role in maintaining these dispersed social networks. Rather than conflicting with people’s community ties, we find that the internet fits seamlessly within-person and phone encounters. With the help of the internet, people are able to maintain active contact with sizable social networks, even though many of the people in those networks do not live nearby. Moreover, there is media multiplexity: The more that people see each other in person and talk on the phone, the more they use the internet. The connectedness that the internet and other media foster within social networks has real payoffs: People use the internet to seek out others in their networks of contacts when they need help. [And] because individuals — rather than households — are separately connected, the internet and the cell phone have transformed communication from house-to-house to person-to-person.