Understanding the Impact of Online Communities on Civic Engagement
This week, the USC Annenberg School published a major study on the impact of the Internet on American society. Their research suggests that the online world is becoming equally important to people as the offline world - and it’s affecting the way we get involved in civic life.
The Center for the Digital Future has conducted a longitudinal survey on Internet use for the last six years, giving them unique insight into how cyberspace has weaved itself into our cultural fabric. Americans with Internet access - and they suggest that includes just over three-quarters of all of us - spend an average of 8.9 hours online each week.
More interesting, though, is how we’re using that access. For one thing, we’re producing more online content than ever before, with 12.5 percent of Internet users maintaining a website and 7.4 percent publishing a blog. (Though this leads me to wonder how many of these so-called website producers are actually using blogging tools but don’t realize what it’s called. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.) Similarly, 23.6 percent of netizens post photos online, double the amount of photo hounds who were sharing their pics a scant three years ago.
The study also documents how the Internet impacts relationships. Internet users report having formed friendships with an average of 4.65 people this year - people they’ve never met in person. Nearly half of those surveyed - 42.8 percent - say that the Internet has increased the amount of contact they have with friends and family. For many people, these interactions are taking place in online communities. Just over half of online community members log in to their communities on a daily basis, while 70 percent of them interact with their fellow community members on a regular basis.
Perhaps one of the most interesting results of the survey is the suggestion that online communities have a direct impact on civic participation. Just over one-fifth of online community members - 20.3 percent - take action offline for a cause related to their online communities at least once a year. Nearly 65 percent of online community members say they now engage in civic causes that were new to them when they started going online, while an additional 43.7 percent say they participate in social activism more since they’ve joined their online communities. This may explain why 43 percent of online community members feel as strongly about their virtual life as they do about their real-world life.
The research also samples parents’ opinions about their kids’ Internet use. More than 70 percent of parents say their kids spend the right amount of time online each week. This may seem like a resounding endorsement of youth Internet use, but it’s not, since this percentage has dropped steadily in the six years of the longitudinal study, suggesting that a growing number of parents are troubled by the amount of time their sons and daughters are online. And three-quarters of parents surveyed said their kids’ grades haven’t improved since they started going online. Personally, I’m worried that some people might read into this particular stat too much and say that it shows there’s no correlation between Internet use and grades. They’re not looking at educational uses of the Net - they’re including all the time kids spend chatting and gaming and whatnot. And since schools don’t exactly test student instant messaging abilities, of course parents aren’t going to notice an improvement in grades just based on Internet use in the broadest sense.
For me, though, I’m most fascinated about the potential correlation between online communities and civic engagement. I know from my own personal experience that I’m much more engaged in civic issues because of the relationships I’ve formed online. And I see it all the time online as well. On my WWWEDU discussion list, for example, members of the list have been mobilizing to lobby Oprah Winfrey to do a program on the impact of news coverage regarding online predators on Web-based education. They’re taking the position that while bringing predators to justice is of paramount importance, the hype that’s been created by certain media outlets has led to policy initiatives like the Deleting Online Predators Act, which they believe will harm educators’ ability to use the Internet effectively in the classroom. Social actions like this occur all the time online - and they’d be a lot hard to accomplish if educators weren’t organizing themselves into their own communities of interest. Even students are getting into the act, whether through organizing youth protests on MySpace or mobilizing around social causes through educational projects like TakingITGlobal and Global SchoolHouse. Perhaps the next Annenberg study could also document whether this new found online social activism actually impacts policy decisions in the long run - it’s research than many of us - educators and non-educators alike - would welcome. -andy