Some years ago there was interest in the possibility of what was known as ‘cyber-balkanisation’ – the expectation that online activity would create silos of communities of interest at the expense of diversity of networks; and perhaps that local communities based on face-to-face contact might atrophy as a direct consequence. I even wrote an article for the New Statesman about it, it must have been at least ten years ago.

Now here’s research to confirm that social networks are not less diverse when mediated by online, and that online use makes a ‘positive and substantive total contribution’ to network diversity and hence to the social capital that is accessible through personal networks.

This is the most recent output from Keith Hampton and his colleagues based on the data collected for the Pew Internet and American Life Project (which has grabbed our attention a couple of times in the past, here and here).

The argument goes something like this.

The potential for higher social capital is maximized in social settings where the diversity of others is highest. More than anything, that means certain kinds of public space; but the study refers to ‘traditional settings’ broadly to include urban public spaces, semi-public spaces, voluntary associations, religious institutions and neighbourhoods – settings in which people organise social relations. The research first confirms that such settings make an important contribution to social network diversity.

It then asks, does online activity have a positive or negative effect, or none at all, on the diversity of people’s social networks?

Specifically referring to frequent use of the internet at work and the use of social networking services, the researchers find that the direct contribution of even such limited relationships to the diversity of personal networks is ‘substantial’. To put it into some sort of perspective, they say it is comparable to:

‘the dif­ference between those who know none and those who know all of their neighbors, those who do not attend church and those who attend twice weekly, those who make three additional weekly visits to public spaces, belonging to two additional types of voluntary association, or making four additional weekly visits to a semipublic space.’

They go on to conclude that,

‘In contrast to a belief that networks would be more easily abandoned in the electronic age, social networks may be more persistent now than at any point in modern history. ICTs afford relationship maintenance in ways that reduce the likelihood that ties will ever become completely dormant… Not only are networks persistent over time, but they are increasingly pervasive and visible across what were once clearly articulated and bounded cliques.’

While there are cautions about the possible effects of the uses of different technologies in the future, the key point of this paper is to confirm that online use is likely to enhance the diversity of social networks, not constrain it, and hence assists in the accumulation of social capital.

Kevin Harris