Isolated (or not) on the internet

A few years ago it came out that western civilization was doomed. Well, not really, but that’s the impression you might have gotten from the coverage of an article that Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and I published that suggested that American discussion networks were shrinking. Needless to say, we didn’t intend to give the impression that western culture was crumbling, but doomsaying can be amazingly difficult to quash once it gets started.

Our findings were so surprising that it’s made a lot of people very curious. Claude Fischer, for example, recently engaged in a debate with us in the American Sociological Review over whether or not our results can be trusted- particularly in light of the discovery of a small number of miscodes in the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS) data. You can read the exchange online if you like, and I encourage you to do so if you’re interested in the difficulties involved in doing good survey network research. Regardless of whether you accept our arguments or Professor Fischer’s, however, the simple fact remains that we need more data in order to resolve the issue. And, pleasantly enough, more data is exactly what we’re getting.

A new report has just been released by the Pew Research Center that confirms some of our original results and questions others. In brief, this new research confirms our recent estimate of discussion network size, agreeing that the average network now includes two alters instead of the three recorded by the GSS in 1985. On the other hand, their research does not confirm the amount of social isolation- that is, persons who do not report discussing important matters with anyone- that was observed in the 2004 GSS. So, according to this new data, networks have grown smaller since 1985, but we probably aren’t quite as isolated as we feared. So does this settle the issue? Probably not. The GSS in 2004 had a response rate of about 70.4%. The Pew study, in contrast, had a response rate of around 22%. There’s also a difference in survey methodology- the GSS is face-to-face while the Pew study was administered via telephone- that makes it difficult to determine whether or not one value should be trusted over another. That this new data corroborates an overall reduction in discussion network size is helpful, but it’s hard to know just how comparable each dataset is to the other. Nonetheless, the Pew team- led by Keith Hampton– has moved us closer to an answer than we were before.

Beyond addressing network size, however, the Pew study suggests that decreases in network size, if real, probably are not the result of our growing reliance on technology. While the idea that computers would eventually make us withdraw from human contact has been- and continues to be– a staple of science fiction, the reality appears to be that those who make extensive use of electronic means of communication may be even better connected than their less-computerized peers. Indeed, in a finding that that should prove particularly interesting to readers, Pew finds that, “Bloggers are 61% more likely to visit a public park than internet users who do not maintain a blog, or about 2.3 times more likely than non‐internet users,” (Pg. 10). And that should be reassuring to both my fellow bloggers and those who love us! Being a blogger doesn’t mean being a shut-in any more, if indeed it ever did. If social isolation has increased, and if networks really are smaller, then it appears we’ll have to look a little further than technophobia for our answer.

It’s hard to say where the evidence will lead, but it’s an exciting time to be involved in this area, and the future promises to be a very interesting place!

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One Response to Isolated (or not) on the internet

  1. Michael Bishop says:

    I realize its sorta off-topic, but Edward Castronova has some really interesting work on many different aspects of social interaction in virtual worlds. See his site here: http://mypage.iu.edu/~castro/

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