New report out today with the Pew Research Center\’s Internet & American Life Project. We report on the findings of a large, national survey of 2,255 Americans interviewed in November 2010. In many ways, this is a followup to the report on social isolation that we released in 2009 – with a stronger emphasis on the relationship between the use of social networking sites (SNS) (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace) and the size and structure of people\’s \”real\” overall social networks (not just those people they interact with online or using SNS). As with the last report, the aim was to provide actual evidence to either substantiate or refute the claims that we regularly see reported about how SNS use leads to isolation, cocooning, or otherwise damage social relationships.

There is a good summary of the findings in the press release, and in the summary of the report. This includes the findings that:

  • Internet users in general, but Facebook users even more so, have more close relationships than other people (that is, people with whom they discuss important matters).
  • Facebook users are more trusting than other people.
  • Facebook users get more overall social support, and in particular they report more emotional support and companionship than other people. And, it is not a trivial amount of support. Compared to other things that matter for support – like being married or living with a partner – it really matters. Frequent Facebook use is equivalent to about half the boost in support you get from being married.
  • Facebook users are much more involved in politics than other people. Facebook users are more likely to vote, more likely to attend political meetings, and more likely to try and persuade someone to vote for a specific candidate than similar people – or people who use the Internet in other ways.
  • However, unless you dig a little deeper into the report you may miss what I think are some of the really interesting methods we used and findings:

    We measured the size of people\’s overall social networks – not just their online friends, but a measure of how many people they really know, in total. The average American has 634 social ties. There is a great deal of disparity in the size of people’s social networks comparing those who use the Internet and those who do not – almost all of that can be explained by the digital divide. The only technology use associated with a difference in the number of people a person knows is the use of a mobile phone and use of instant messaging – both associated with knowing more people.

    It gets really interesting when we compare the size of people’s overall social network (on and offline) to the size of their \”friends\” list on SNS. The average SNS user has friended about half of the total number of people that they know. A small number of people actually have more Facebook friends than the number of people they report that they know overall. Only a small fraction turn out to be strangers – most are dormant ties and friends of friends (great potential social capital).

    Many of the questions we asked were questions that we also asked as part of the last report in 2009. There has been a modest upswing in some of these measures. For example, people were more likely to report that they know their neighbors, that they volunteered, and that they trusted other people.

    We also revisited a question where we asked people to give us the names of people with whom they discussed important matters. When we asked this question in 2008 it was in response to findings from the GSS that reported a decline since the 1980s in the number of most people\’s very close social ties and an increase in social isolation (see the paper on our 2008 findings here). Compared to when we asked this question in 2008, there is less social isolation in America and the average American reports having more close confidants. Facebook users are even more likely than other people to have more of these close confidants.

    I have a new paper that has been published in the June issue of the journal Information, Communication & Society. The article is titled \”Comparing Bonding and Bridging Ties for Democratic Engagement: Everyday use of Communication Technologies Within Social Networks for Civic and Civil Behaviors\”.

    This paper explores the question of what matters more for democratic engagement, strong or weak ties? And how does frequency of communication with core ties, using the Internet, mobile phone, etc. affect this relationship? I was particularly interested in the role of political disagreement within core networks. Other research suggests that political heterogeneity amongst core ties reduces political participation. However, I found, that when we consider democratic engagement more broadly than just voting, political disagreement amongst strong ties is associated with higher levels of civil and civic behaviors. Here is the abstract:

    The structure of people\’s social networks predicts democratic engagement. However, the relative contribution of different types of social ties to civic and civil behaviors is unclear. This paper explores the role of core networks – bonding social capital – to the role of overall network diversity – bridging social capital – for participation in formal civic institutions and informal civil behaviors. Emphasis is placed on the possible role of heterogeneity within core networks – political disagreement and the presence of nonkin ties – and on frequency of interaction, in-person and mediated: mobile phone and the Internet. This study finds that overall network diversity is a more consistent and substantive predictor of civic and civil behaviors than the size or heterogeneity of the small number of ties that make up the core network of most people. The two dominant new media used to interact with core network members – email and mobile phones – are unrelated to any of the behaviors measured. Some other media – contact in-person, postal mail, texting, instant messaging, and social network services – have an inconsistent and modest relationship to civic and civil behaviors. Findings lead to speculation that political disagreement within core networks, typically associated with lower levels of political participation, has a spillover effect that results in other forms of democratic engagement. There is evidence of glocalization; contact with core ties using new media supports local civil and civic behaviors. Internet use largely supports democratic engagement through interaction with bridging, but not bonding ties.

    A copy of the final version can be obtained from the journal\’s website, or you can view an earlier draft on my website.