The latest Pew Internet Project report has just been published, on the topic of ‘neighbors online’.

It’s based on telephone interviews with 2,258 Americans, and while I didn’t read anything that hit the wow-box it certainly helps us think about communication at neighbourhood level. The questions asked about face-to-face interaction with neighbours, telephone contact, and a range of local online resources.

Unsurprisingly (and as last year’s Pew Internet study demonstrated) internet users are just as likely as non-users to discuss local issues face-to-face. People in higher income households and with higher educational attainment are more likely to talk face-to-face with neighbours about local issues.

Between 4% and 11% of all those surveyed exchange email with their neighbours about local issues, read a blog dealing with local issues, or are signed up to a locally-focussed online forum or social network. This is baseline data, hopefully Pew will repeat the questions every now and then.

For me the most interesting finding was this:

15% of internet users who know none of their immediate neighbors by name read community blogs or join a community-focused group on an online social network.

This compares with 14% of those who know all of their neighbors. Maybe communicative folk will use f2f, telephone, email, twittever they can, to communicate. But there are obvious differences. For example, generally if you’re going to speak to a neighbour on the phone, you’re going to ‘know’ them first; if you connect with a neighbour through an online forum, you don’t need to know them. Non-communicative folk who realise they are disadvantaged by lack of connection and information now have local spaces where they can lurk comfortably and still become informed. Dat’s progress for yer.

As always with this kind of material, the meaning of the findings is subject to what we understand by ‘knowing’ our neighbours; and by the significance we attach to that. I maintain that it is not knowing neighbours by name that matters in terms of a supportive local social environment, but recognition. I can’t say whether or not the north American context is comparable, but I observe that Keith Hampton has found it necessary to stress the importance of weak ties against a tendency to privilege strong ties. If our understanding of the contribution of online to neighbouring is focused on strong ties, we could be missing, or misinterpreting, a lot.

Last year’s Pew Internet Survey asked a question designed to ascertain whether the internet had affected people’s understanding of the word ‘discuss’ in relation to ‘important matters’ and ‘significant ties’. (The researchers did not find that it has). If they can do that, maybe they can work on the question of whether the internet may be affecting our understanding of the word ‘know’ in relation to ‘neighbours’. And perhaps more importantly, we can start looking at how local online resources allow us to connect with people we don’t know.

Kevin Harris, Networked Neighbourhoods