The Pew Research Center’s Internet and America Life Project recently released a new national study on the impact of the internet on participation in group and organizational life. The results revealed that individuals who use the internet are more likely to be active participants in groups:
“80% of internet users participate in groups, compared with 56% of non‐internet users. And social media users are even more likely to be active: 82% of social network users and 85% of Twitter users are group participants.”
This isn’t just talking about being a member of a Facebook group or World of Warcraft guild – the kind of groups that might typically be associated with internet users. This includes groups both online and offline, formal and informal. The most popular kind of group affiliation amongst those surveyed is with church and spiritual groups (40% of adults reporting activity), followed by sports and recreation leagues (24%), and consumer groups such as AAA or coupon-sharing groups (22%). By contrast, just 6% reported being active in gaming communities.
What we’re seeing is a correlation between internet use and active engagement in communities, transcending the boundary between cyberspace and “real” space. The Pew report states, “Internet users are more active participants in their groups than other adults, and are more likely to feel pride and a sense of accomplishment.” Not only are internet users joining more groups, but they’re demonstrating higher levels of involvement and, arguably, getting more meaningful satisfaction out of the experience.
This is in stark contrast to oft-voiced fears that new media are fueling the breakdown of culture and civil society by encouraging disconnection from communities, neighbors, and the social institutions that make up the public sphere. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, says, “It’s not the case that [internet users] are withdrawing to the artificial worlds of virtual life at the expense of engagement with their neighbors.” In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. As Alex Howard suggests, perhaps we aren’t all bowling alone after all.
Lee Rainie, Alex Howard, Jerry Berman, Andrew Keen, and Clay Shirky discussed the implications of the Pew study for civic participation and technology policy in an excellent panel at the State of the Net Conference in Washington, DC. The speakers repeatedly referenced Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 work, “Democracy in America.” As Berman explained, de Tocqueville was concerned with the individualism he saw in American society, but believed that what saved American democracy and liberty was associational life – the coming together of citizens to communicate and exchange ideas, facilitated in that age by the newspaper.
De Tocqueville saw that associations among individuals strengthen democratic life — not just political associations, but also civic associations such as churches and social clubs. The increased participation in groups amongst internet users is a revitalization of associational life, and civic participation in general. Although reading your synagogue’s e-newsletter or joining a pickup soccer league might not be an explicitly political act, engaging with civic organizations and communities in this way inherently reinforces the ties that form the basis for a strong democratic society. As Lee Rainie said, “People are highly purposeful when they engage in groups.”
Participation is one of our core values at CfA. We’re usually talking about how to use technology to make government more participatory, so that citizens and government are better able to engage with one another. But just as important are the ways that the internet encourages citizens to connect with each other, online and offline.
When weighing the benefits of the internet to a democratic society, “We have historically overestimated access to information and underestimated access to each other as the value of the system,” says Shirky. “Access to one another is in fact going to be the thing that changes the political landscape.”