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An Internet civics lesson?
By Scott Bradner
The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just published the latest if its explorations on how the Internet is effecting us. The latest study confirms what many observers of the impact of the Internet have assumed was the case - the Internet, or at least social web sites, get more, or at least different, people involved in things political. That does not mean that talk radio's days are numbered but it may mean that there are involvement processes that are more Internet-like and less broadcast-like.
The new study, titled "The Internet and Civic Engagement" (http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2009/The%20Internet%20and%20Civic%20Engagement.pdf) starts off with the summary: "Just as in offline politics, the well-off and well-educated are especially likely to participate in online activities that mirror offline forms of engagement. But there are hints that social media may alter this pattern." The study spends quite a bit of time with the first part of this summary - showing that "traditional political activities remain the domain of those with high levels of income and education." I do wonder if the T-Parties and health care "town meetings" of the last few months might have demonstrated a less-stratified political discourse (if discourse is the right word) than this study finds.
In any case, the Pew study shows that the more someone makes the higher chance that they will be active politically, both in on-line activities and in physical-world ways. Pew does find less of a difference between the on-line political activities of younger people of different socio-economic statuses than of older folks. Maybe because of the higher level of Internet use among the young. But since the study does note that the survey that the study is based on did not include cell phone users and since younger folk are more likely to have moved to a cell phone only mode of operation, the study might actually under estimate the involvement of younger people in the political world. The Pew folk think that the results might not be all that different if they had included people who only used cell phones but, I wonder, considering other studies of people who have dropped their land lines. (see http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2008/012808bradner.html)
I'm a bit surprised that the Pew study did not find a bigger impact of social networking sites than they did. The study did find "hints" that social networking sites will have an impact but I would have expected more considering the election we just went through. (http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2008/111008bradner.html) The study showed that a third of all Internet users had a profile on a social networking site - that seems low to me considering the mindshare that these sites seem to have.
The study notes that 90% of young adults go on-line and that people under 35 make up more than 70% of the people who "make political use of social networking sites" with people under 25 making up more than half of this number even though they were only 10% of survey respondents.
The Pew survey has a lot more information in it than I've reviewed here and is worth taking a look at. What the study cannot determine is the future level of political involvement of the young folk who currently are so heavily involved on-line. It sure would be interesting if their enthusiasm does not fade over time.
disclaimer: Harvard's undergraduate houses were designed for social networking before there was data networking but I have not seen any university opinion on the Internet type of social networking so the above review is mine.