October 31, 2001

Online Communities

Part 4: The Differences Among Online Group Members

Introduction

Different types of online groups attract different types of Internet users and elicit different kinds of participation from members.  People involved in medical support groups are different from people in hobbyist online communities.  Those drawn to groups involved with civic engagement are different from those who belong to professional and trade groups.  And the amount of emailing in the different kinds of groups varies.  This section examines different aggregations of online groups, looking at who joins them and the different levels of chatter and connection among participants.  There is considerable overlap among categories, since the average Cyber Groupie has, at one time or another contacted about four different kinds of Internet groups. The section analyzes Internet users who have ever gone to a certain type of online group. An Internet user who has gone to a belief group and a lifestyle group is counted in both groups in the discussion below.

The Getting Ahead group: 51% of Internet users

People in the Getting Ahead category are those who belong to an online group related to their work, such as Internet groups involving trade and professional associations or labor unions.  Only 6% of Internet users belong to an online group relating to a labor union, thus most of the Getting Aheads are professionals.  And they are primarily males (57%), well educated (45% have college degrees or more compared to 36% of all Internet users), and well off economically (27% have household incomes in excess of $75,000 compared to 21% of all Internet users.  Finally, this group has a lot of Internet experience; 48% have been online for three years or more compared with 38% of the overall Internet population. 

The Getting Ahead crowd is somewhat more likely than other Internet users to engage in extensive online chatter. Two out of three (66%) of the Getting Aheaders email their online group, which is more than the average online community member’s rate of 60%, but both groups are about as likely to email the group at least several times a week. Those in the Getting Ahead cohort are slightly more likely than average users to contact the group to see what’s going on and Getting Aheaders are more likely to report that the Internet has helped them get more involved with the groups to which they already belong. Some 46% say this, which above the Cyber Groupie average of 41% and higher than most of the groups discussed below.  But people in the Getting Ahead category are no more likely than the average to contact their online group to establish personal relationships with other members or discuss issues with other members.

The Getting By group: 43% of Internet users

Online groups give people the opportunity to use the Internet to manage their day-to-day responsibilities that do not relate to their career, such as medical conditions or parenting.  In other words, they belong to online communities that can help people get by on a daily basis.13  Groups that help in these areas are support groups that might involve a medical or personal condition or, on the neighborhood level, local youth groups such as the YMCA or scouts.  Combining those two types of groups yields the Getting By category.  The Getting By cohort has more women than men and is skewed towards the 35-44 age bracket.  Fully a third of the Getting By group (34%) are in that age bracket compared to 27% of all Internet users.

Online conversation is a bit more important to the Getting By group than the average online community member. Some 64% of Getting By community members email their group, and 46% do it at least several times a week.  Fully 71% go to their group to discuss issues with other members. Finding out about group activities is important, as well: 74% say that this is an important reason they email the group. And 79% say they email the group to get general news about the group compared with 75% of all online community members.  In terms of establishing personal relationships with online community members, the Getting By’s are no more likely to do this than the average member an online group.

Belief groups: 56% of Internet users

Online groups regarding people’s religious or spiritual beliefs are popular among Internet users.  We combined three types of Internet users into a cohort we call the Belief group: people who have used the Net to contact a religious group, people who have reached out to others who share their beliefs, and Internet users who belong to a church or synagogue.  This group looks very much like the Internet population overall, although a bit more likely to be female and well educated; 53% are women (versus 49% overall for Cyber Groupies) and 40% of the Belief Group has a college education or more compared to 36% of the Internet population. 

In terms of online chatter, people in the Belief Group tend to value personal connections a bit more than the average member of an online community.  Two-thirds (67%) have emailed an online group, with 46% doing so several times a week or more.  Fully 53% of those in Belief Groups say that creating or maintaining personal relationships with other groups members is an important reason they email group members; this contrasts with 49% of all online community members.  And 74% say that they email the group to get involved with and learn more about group activities, compared with 71% of all online community members. 

Lifestylers: 28% of Internet users

Aside from seeking out people with common beliefs, online community members also take to the Internet to find people who have similar lifestyles, with 28% of Internet users having contacted such an online group at one time.  Most Lifestylers are men (55%) and they are a bit more likely to live in urban areas than the average Internet users, by a 34% to 31% margin.  They are also ardent Internet users; 45% have been online for three or more years compared with 38% of all Internet users. Lifestylers as a group do not have greater levels of education compared to the rest of the Internet population. Lifestylers are, however, younger and more ethnically diverse than the average Internet user.  Fully 27% of Lifestylers are under age 34 compared to 23% of all Internet users.  And 10% are Hispanics and 10% are blacks, compared for 8% figures for each racial category for all Internet users. 

Lifestylers are among the most active emailers among online group members.  Fully three quarters (73%) email their group, compared to 60% of all Internet users. And 54% email their group several times a week or more, compared with 43% of all Internet users.  Among Lifestylers, 77% say discussing issues with the group is an important reason for emailing it compared with 68% of all Internet users.  More strikingly, 61% of Lifestylers say they email the group to create or maintain personal relationships with members, a substantial margin above the 49% of all Internet users who do so.    Lifestylers also engage in emailing with local online groups with more frequency than average; 46% email local online groups compared to the 38% average.  And 45% do so several times a week or more compared to the average of 33%.  Overall, Lifestylers are very enthusiastic about the Internet’s impact on their involvement in the groups to which they already belong.  More than half (55%) say the Internet has deepened their involvement in groups, well above the average for all Cyber Groupies users (41%).

Ethnic and racial groups: 15% of Internet users

The 15% of Internet users who have contacted an ethnic group online are the most heavily urban and racially diverse subset of online community members considered in this section.  The combination of city living and racial diversity comes with high levels of Internet experience, high incomes, and youth.  Four out of nine (44%) Internet users who have contacted an online ethnic group live in urban areas compared with 31% of all Internet users.  One-quarter (24%) are between ages 18 and 24 compared to 17% of all Internet users, and only 58% of ethnic and racial group participants are white, well below the 77% average for all Internet users.  One in six (17%) of this group are black (twice the share of blacks in the Internet population), 13% are Hispanic (compared with 8% of Internet users), and 10% classify themselves as “other” compared to 4% of Internet users.  Forty-two percent have college degrees or more compared with 36% of Internet users, and 53% have been using the Internet for three or more years compared to the 38% average.  Fifty-two percent of those in ethnic and racial groups are male.

The distinctiveness of this group carries over to their pattern of chatter in online groups.  Fully 72% email their principal online group (compared with 60% of all online community members) and 51% do so several times a week or every day (against the 43% average).  And 58% email the group to create or establish relationships with other group members, higher than the 49% average for all online community members.  The active emailing extends to messages to online groups involving matters close to home; 53% of ethnic groupies have email local online groups compared to the 38% average.  It is not surprising that, on balance, members of ethnic and racial groups say the Internet has helped them become more involved with the groups to which they already belong.  Nearly 3 in 5, or 57%, say the Internet has increased their involvement in groups.

Civic Engagement group: 45% of Internet users

People go online to connect to groups that have something to do with the place in which they live, with 29% of Internet users having at one time or another contacted a local community group or association and 30% having used the Internet for some involvement with a local charitable organization.  This is the Civic Engagement group.  Demographically, the Civic Engagers are similar to the Internet as a whole, although they are more experienced with the Internet and better educated.  Forty-four percent of the Civic Engagement group has a college education or more compared to 36% of all Internet users.  And the Civic Engagement crowd is somewhat older; 51% fall in the 35-to-55 age group compared to 46% of all Internet users.  It also more experienced with the Internet, with 46% having been Internet users for three or more years compared to the 38% average.

The civically engaged are active in emailing online groups, especially online groups that pertain to matters close to home.  Overall, 70% of the civically engaged email their online group versus 60% all online group members; 43% email their group several times a week, on par with all Internet users community members.  For groups close to home, 44% of the civically engaged email these groups compared with 38% of all online group members.

Political Groupies: 22% of Internet users

About one in five (22%) of Internet users have used the Internet to contact a political group or organization, and this subset of Internet users is a predominantly male, educated, veteran group of surfers, with an urban bent.  Fully 60% are male, half (50%) have a college education, and more than half (54%) have been online for three years or more.  And 36% of users who have contacted a political group live in urban areas compared with 31% of all Internet users.  Racially, blacks are underrepresented in this group, as only 4% of those politically involved are black compared to 8% of the Internet population.

Perhaps as a consequence of their lengthy Internet experience, the politically involved engage in a lot of email chatter.  Three quarters (75%) have emailed an online group (45% several times a week or more) and 80% have emailed the group to find out about general group news compared with 76% for all online community members.  For those who have contacted a political group using the Internet, even online politics seems to be local; 55% of this group has emailed a local online group of some sort, compared with 38% of all online community members.  Political Groupies overall seem to approve the Internet’s impact on their involvement with groups to which they already belong; 53% say the Internet has helped improve contacts with groups, 17 points above the Internet average.

Entertainment Groupies: 60% of Internet users

People who flock to online entertainment groups look very much like the rest of the Internet population, although they are a bit younger, more urban, and more experienced on the Internet than average.  This group is defined as the 31% of Internet users who have contacted the fan site of a TV show or entertainer or the 50% of users who have contacted an online group having to do with a hobby.  Some 52% of Entertainment Groupies are men and 34% live in urban areas (compared with 31% of all Internet users).  Twenty-one percent are between the ages of 18 and 24, compared with 17% of all Internet users.  Entertainment Groupies also have high levels of Internet experience, with 44% falling into the most veteran category of Internet surfers (three or more years online) compared to the 38% average.

Entertainment Groupies are a little more likely to email their group than average online group members (63% to 60%) and more likely by the same margin to email several times a week or more (46% to 43%).  The pattern persists for establishing relationships with group members and discussing issues with group members.

Sports Junkies: 42% of Internet users

Sports Junkies are the Internet users who have contacted an online group about their favorite sports team, a sports team in a league in which they participate, or they belong to a local sports league.  Sports Junkies tend to be suburban men between the ages of 35 and 44 who have a slightly more Internet experience than the average Internet user.  Fully 59% of these are men and 54% live in suburban areas. Close to one-third (31%) are between age 35 and 44.  Sports Junkies have been online a bit longer than the average Internet user (42% have been online for three years or more), but they have roughly the same educational levels as average online users.

The patterns of online chatter for Sports Junkies follow that of Entertainment Groupies very closely.  Sixty-three percent of Sports Junkies email their online group and 46% do so several times a week or more.  Fully 72% email their group to discuss issues with other group members and 51% do so to establish or create relationships with other group members. And 74% email the group to learn more about group activities or to become more involved with the group.

Comparing groups

Looking across these classifications of online community members, the groups that are most actively engaged, as measured by the amount of emailing by members, are Political Groupies, Lifestylers, members of ethnic and racial groups, and Civic Engagers.  In each group, 70% or more email other group members, well above the 60% average.  Online experience seems most strongly associated with engagement in online groups, with the groups with the most frequent emailing having a large share of the Internet’s most experienced users.

Patterns of participation

There is also a correspondence between online experience and emailing local groups.  For Political Groupies, Lifestylers, Civic Engagers, and members of ethnic and racial groups, the rate of local online group emailing is well above the average, and these groups contain the most experienced Internet users relative to the others.  Internet users in these categories are also more likely than average to say the Internet has helped them become more involved with groups that they already belong to, with that finding being strongest for ethnic and racial groups, Lifestylers, and Political Groupies.

In looking at these active categories of online groups, two divisions stand out.  First, the high levels of chatter among Civic Engagers and Political Groupies signals good news to those who hope that the Internet may contribute to a revival of American civic life.  A substantial number of Internet users have contacted such groups using the Internet (29% have contacted a local community association and 22% have contacted a political group) and these users have a tendency toward establishing serious connections to online groups.  Second, groups that have fairly direct ties to people’s lifestyle or race/ethnicity also draw members willing to engage in online chatter and connection. 

Although Belief Groups are not listed as highly engaged groups (because “only” 67% of members send emails), even that category’s users report a relatively high incidence of emailing others to establish personal connections with other members.  In some respects, the categories that have active emailers are inherently more interactive than the others.  If you are interested in finding others who share your beliefs or lifestyle, you probably want to chat with them.  If you are a fan of a TV show or a sports star, you may be more interested in getting information from a Web site about Tiger Woods or Jennifer Anniston than talking with other fans.

  1. Xavier de Souza Briggs, “Brown Kids in White Suburbs: Housing Mobility and the Many Faces of Social Capital,” Housing Policy Debate. Volume 9, Issue 1. Briggs distinguishes between social capital that helps people “get ahead” (e.g., improves job possibilities) and social capital that helps people “get by” (e.g., cope with everyday needs).