Sociability and the Internet

In the mid-90s, two strains of thought began to pervade the sphere of discourse regarding sociability and the Internet. On one hand, people felt as though there was something innovative about virtual communities, that they were fostering a new kind of sociability. Some believed that virtual communities were the culmination of a historical process of separation between locality and sociability.

The contrary argument viewed the online world as a manner of escapism, in which individuals were living out fantasies in isolation from real social interactions, leading to a breakdown in collective sociability.

Manuel Castells points out three fundamental flaws with this debate:

  1. First, many of the studies are based on observations that were taken before the widespread diffusion of Internet technologies, causing a problem with the sample size;
  2. Second, the arguments were not based on reliable empirical research;
  3. Third, it was based around overly simplified questions that examined polarities.

As time passed, a more moderate discourse emerged that aimed at explaining how the Internet had an effect on sociability: in the family, as well as in social networks.

A number of North American quantitative studies were used to research this area. One of the key variables in studies of the Internet and sociability involves the overall quality of online social interaction.

As a solitary activity, Internet usage may detract from time spent socializing with others; and as a social activity, Internet usage may detract from forms of social interaction that are perceived to be of a higher caliber than CMC, such as face-to-face communication or telephone facilitated communications.

A review of historical examples shows similar concerns about the effects of ICTs on sociability, associated with the television and home computer.

There seems to be conflicting evidence on the effects of ICTs on sociability. According to Nie (2001), increased Internet use leads to decreased time spent with friend and family while Kraut et al. (1998) show that Internet use can contribute to a decline in local social networks and an increase in loneliness, although a follow-up to this study showed that the effect had disappeared.

On the other hand there has been some findings that reveal that Internet use can lead to increased communication with local friends (Kavanaugh & Patterson, 2001). A review of the research in this area by Katz and Rice (2002) shows that Internet use expands interactions with social networks.

Finally, there is evidence that increased Internet usage does not have any substantial effect on the sociability of individuals (Katz et. al, 2001).

Methodological Issues associated with studies of sociability and the Internet

There are some basic methodological issues involved with research into sociability and networking. Some critics cite the representativeness of sample populations; methodological shortcomings associated with self-reports; and issues associated with proving causality with cross-sectional data.

Research in this area also needs to take into account predispositions in social behavior. Several studies (Kiesler et al., 2000; Kraut et al., 2002) show that Internet usage simply acts as a catalyst for social behavior: introverts who use the Internet are likely to become more lonely while extroverts who use the Internet are more likely to become less lonely.

Another issue involves the concept of “Internet use.” The uses of the Internet are multi-faceted so lumping them all together under the activity of “Internet use” may be misleading.

Social Networks

Study of social networks predates the study of social networks and ICTs. Some of the earlier research on social networks focused on how social networks provided social and psychological support to individuals. More recently, there has been increased focus on the role of ICTs in building and sustaining social networks.

There are numerous ways in which social networks influence the adoption and usage of ICTs. First, social networks can facilitate the acquisition of ICTs. For example, if I were to give a friend an iPod for his birthday, it could be said that the social network in which my friend and I are connected, provided my friend with an ICT. Additionally, social networks can inform individuals about ICTs and possibly even influence them to acquire ICTs.

Castells’ writing on the Network Society plays a prominent role in the discourse on social networks and ICTs.

Key Research and Findings

  • Cummings et al. (2002) concluded that online relationships are less valuable than offline ones. Their net benefit depends on whether they supplement or substitute for offline social relationships. Their findings are based on a number of secondary empirical studies.
  • Kavanaugh and Patterson (2001) (Chicken or the Egg?) conducted a longitudinal study of a community computer network known as the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV). There is no evidence that shows an increase in community involvement or attachment, except for a minority of the population that scored highly on preexisting community involvement. These findings seem to support Wellman’s belief that prior social capital is a prerequisite for a successful social network facilitated through CMC.
  • In 1998, a study by Kraut et al. revealed negative effects of using the Internet on social involvement and pscyhological well-being among new Internet users including decline in communication with family members, decline in the size of their social circle, and an increase in their depression and loneliness. A 3-year follow-up of the respondents found that the negative effects had dissipated. The 2001 article also reports finding from a longitudinal survey of new computer and televison purchasers that shows generally positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being – but the findings comply with a “rich get richer” model in which the Internet helps extraverts socialize but shows worse outcomes for introverts and those with less support.
  • Nie (2001) examines a number of surveys focused on the impact of the Internet on the quantity and quality of interpersonal communications and sociability. He concludes that the key findings suggest that Internet users do not become more sociable; rather, they already displayed a higher degree of social connectivity and participation due to factors like education, income, and age. Furthermore, due to the “inelasticity” of time, Internet use may reduce interpersonal interaction and communication.
  • Ling et al. (2003) studied data gathered within the EU e-living project – gathered through questionnaires in Norway, the UK, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Israel. Their findings indicate that ICTs can facilitate sociability when there is already a foundation to build upon; ICTs can not be used to build a foundation. It is beyond the role of ICTs to create social networks although certain types of sociability can be developed through ICTs.
  • Reporting on a longitudinal study of household uses of the Internet in the UK conducted by BT, Tracey (2000) reports little difference between Internet users and non-users in their social behavior and everyday life.
  • Anderson and Tracey (2001) analyzed the same BT study and concluded that CMC and telephone communications can reinforce one-another, particularly in contact with friends. The findings show that non-users are more likely to have person-to-person contact with relatives. They theorize that people who are more upper class tend to have more geographically dispersed friendships, and consequently, use CMC to keep in touch, while lower classes will have more casual contact with family and friends and less need to reach out over a distance.
  • DiMaggio et al. (2001) report findings from public surveys showing that Internet users attended more art events, watched more sports, and played more sports than non-users.
  • Barry Wellman, a well noted academic who has focused on social networks and sociability, a positive effect between intensity of use of the Internet and density of social relationships. On the basis of a survey of 40,000 users in North America, the found that the use of e-mail added to other social interactions and did not substitute for them.

References

Anderson, B & Tracey, K (2001), ‘Digital living: the impact (or otherwise) of the Internet on everyday life’, unpublished research report.

Cummings, J., Butler, B. and Kraut, R. (2002), ‘The Quality of Online Social Relationships’, Communications of the ACM, 45: 7, 103-8.

DiMaggio, P & Hargittai, E & Neuman, W & Robinson, J (2001), ‘The Internet’s Effects on Society’, Annual Reviews of Sociology.

Haddon, L (2006), ‘Social Networks and ICTs’, Media Technology and Everday Life MC409, London School of Economics, London, week 7.

Kavanaugh, A. and Patterson, S. (2001), ‘The Impact of Community Computer Networks on Social Capital and Community Involvement’, American Behavioral Scientist, 45: 3, 496-509.

Kraut, R., Kiesler. S., Boneva, B., Cummings, J. Helgeson, V. and Crawford, A. (2002) ‘Internet Paradox Revisited’, Journal of Social Issues, Vol.58, No.1 pp.49-74

Ling, R., Anderson, B. and Diduci, D. (2003) ‘Mobile Communication and Social Capital in Europe’, in Nyri, K. (Ed.) Mobile Democracy: Essays on Society, Self and Politics, Passagen Verlag, Vienna, pp.359-74

Nie, N. (2001) ‘Sociability, Interpersonal Relations and the Internet. Reconciling Conflicting Findings’, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol.45, No.3, pp.420-35

Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Crumbling and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, New York.

Tracey, K (2000) “Virtual Communities: What’s New?”, paper delivered at the first conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, University of Kansas, Lawrence.