How did I miss this one? In 2008, StatsCan published a very useful paper on How Canadians’ Use of the Internet Affects Social Life and Civic Participation. It speaks directly to the questions about the Internet’s impact on social capital that have been a big part of both my academic research and social media consulting.
The article uses data from the 2005 General Social Survey (the best dataset for this kind of study) to examine the social and political participation of on- and offline Canadians. The study was designed to speak to the debate about whether the Internet is like TV in contributing to the erosion of social capital, or whether it can actually help build social capital by supporting social interaction.
The authors find that the Internet is in fact helping to increase social connectedness:
The findings reveal a two-sided tale of how social cohesion is being transformed through technology. It is a story which has heavy Internet users spending less time in in-person contact with family and friends, and knowing their neighbours less well than others. However, much of what these users do online qualifies as social capital-building activities. Emailing and chatting, for instance, are social activities mostly carried out with friends and family. Further examination of different socio-demographic groups reveals that they have embraced technology not to escape social contact or other traditional activities but to enhance them.
Of course, 2005 is ancient history in Internet terms: long before Facebook and barely into dawn of blogging. It will be interesting to see if the Internet becomes even more constructive now that the web has become a place where people engage in conversation and expression; my view of social media is that its value lies in encouraging more active engagement.