new report: social networking sites and our lives

new report: social networking sites and our lives

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.