A new study published by Keith Hampton and colleagues confirms that internet use has little if any negative impact on the diversity of people’s networks. There are now fewer and fewer voices claiming that internet use will lead to the rapid descent of the human race into dysfunctional incommunicative bestiality (religious leaders and academics like John Locke in his book The devoicing of society have tried to spread misguided alarmism). Things have settled down a bit lately and hopefully with this research, based on and reinforcing last year's Pew study (which I reviewed here), we can all get back to what we were doing.
The article assesses network diversity and technology use in relation to participation in traditional social settings including public spaces, semi-public spaces, religious institutions, voluntary groups, and through neighbourhood ties. It concludes that the use of social media primarily supports diverse networks through participation in these settings. On the whole, internet users have networks that are more diverse than those who do not use the internet, although causality cannot be demonstrated definitively:
There may be bi-directionality; use of traditional social settings may drive some technology use, which in turn drives more use of the settings.
The importance of local place is thoroughly re-confirmed, even without reference to neighbourhood online sites:
The findings show only limited evidence that place-based relations have less resonance with Internet users; this was in one setting (neighborhoods) for one type of technology (social networking sites) – and an alternative explanation, as has been found in other research (Hampton, 2007), is that those with few neighborhood ties are more likely to adopt social media... Place is not lost as a result of the affordances of new technologies, but place-based networks are reinforced and made persistent.
The authors go on to conclude that social networks may be more persistent now than at any point in modern history.
ICTs afford relationship maintenance in ways that reduce the likelihood that ties will ever become completely dormant. Unlike in the past, when networks of high school and neighborhood ties were abandoned with marriage (Kalmijn, 2003) or migration (Hagan et al.,1996), it is increasingly likely that both the relation and the content of the relation’s messages remain persistent over time as “friends” on social networking services and as data stored and engaged with online. As our finding about the use of social networking services suggests, this directly benefits network diversity and access to social capital.