Social, civic benefits of Internet debated during State of the Net conference

A new study out yesterday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that three-quarters of Americans participate in some kind of voluntary group or organization. Moreover, the study found the lines between online and offline participation in group activity is blurring.

In a discussion held yesterday during the State of the Net 2011 Conference, panelists argued over the role social media plays in promoting civic life in America and across the globe. Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, moderated the panel of authors and academics, discussing whether Twitter and Facebook were catalysts for civic participation, or over-hyped distractions.

Serving as a jumping-off point for discussion, Mr. Rainie announced the release of a new report, “The Social Side of the Internet,” finding 75 percent of all Americans are active in voluntary groups or organizations.

“The average American belongs to 3.5 groups and spends over 6 hours a week in group activity, usually outside of work,” Mr. Rainie said. “This is a major element of life for Americans.”

Typical groups or activities that respondents said they partook, included church membership activities, community groups, support groups, consumer groups, gaming communities, and veterans groups, Rainie said. The study also asked about respondents’ use of the internet and social media.

“We found that those most engaged with social media were also engaged with groups, their outcomes and their inputs,” Mr. Rainie said. According to Pew’s calculations, 80 percent of internet users also participate in groups, 82% of social network users and 85% of Twitter users are group participants. Moreover, Mr. Rainie said that group participants were using social media to increase their participation in other groups.

“Forty-six percent of social media users said that social media helped them join groups, they could find groups and participate in more groups than would otherwise be the case if technology weren’t involved in their life.”

Jerry Berman, Founder of the Internet Education Foundation, said the Pew numbers indicate that the internet and social media “are playing a healthy and important role in the social fabric of democracy.” In a reference to Robert Putnam’s seminal Bowling Alone, Mr. Berman said, “People are bowling together. And they’re doing things and being more effective – and the net is helping them do that.”

“What I see in the Pew study is Americans combining to do things, doing things they couldn’t do alone, and empowered to do them together in a better way.”

NYU professor and author Clay Shirky said the report proves Americans are “using social tools to change social practices.”

Mr. Shirky said the numbers that impressed him most were the 75 percent of active group members who said they did not discover any of their groups online. “What they’re doing is taking their real-world, local community groups and just extending them using these tools,” he said. “So online and offline are blending.”

Not all panelists were as impressed with the Pew study, however. Andrew Keen, author and host at TechCrunch.TV, joked that his children cite Pew research in avoiding bedtime. “Pew has numbers for everything,” he said. In addressing the findings of the Social Internet report, Mr. Keen believed the response to be over enthusiastic.

“The idea that de Tocqueville’s America is emerging because of technology, strengthened in the 21st century, I think, is very wishful thinking,” Mr. Keen said. “This idea I simply reject; the idea that American democracy has been in crisis. I think American democracy works relatively well.”

“I don’t argue…that somehow the way to fix American ‘democracy’ is by more community, more organization, more activity. I don’t think America is broken in the first place.”

Still, Alex Howard – a writer for O’Reilly Media, Huffington Post and other outlets on the integration of Web 2.0 technologies in government – argued that the internet and social media have allowed citizens to learn more about and participate with their government in ways previously unthinkable.

“If you look at how people react to information, there are more opportunities for participation than there ever have been before,” he said.

Mr. Howard argued that the opportunity for distributed organizations to use the internet as a platform to create things was something government itself was increasingly trying to leverage.

“The possibility for citizens to influence one another to participate in their towns through these networks is one that has to be deeply considered. When you see someone say, ‘I volunteered to do this’ that ‘I spent time talking to this person’ that ‘I went to this rally’ that ‘I watched this video’ and they share it through these networks, there is an instant impact.”

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