October 31, 2001

Online Communities

Part 5: The Internet and the Local Scene

Introduction

The Internet is an unparalleled medium for global communication, but it also has the potential to give people more information about what is going on in their local community.  On balance, however, the vast majority of Internet users say that the Internet is a useful tool for becoming involved in things going on outside their community. Two-thirds (67%) of Internet users say the Net helps them get involved in things outside their community, compared to only 9% who say it helps them get involved in things close to home.  Urban residents are most likely to say the Internet enables them to get involved with things close to home, with 12% saying it does, while only 6% of rural Internet users say that it does. 

Not surprisingly, people who belong to online communities having to do with local matters are more likely to say that the Internet has gotten them more involved with their cities or towns.  One in seven members (14%) of local online groups say the Internet has helped them become more involved in their local community.  Nearly one in five (19%) of people who joined local online groups after first having Internet contact with them say the Internet has increased their involvement with their community. 

The Internet and what’s going on around town

For local purposes, the Internet is used most often as an information utility to find out about what is going on nearby.  The most popular local information surfing activity is shopping; 41% of Internet users say that they “often” or “sometimes” go online to look for information about local stores or merchants.  About one-third of Internet users go online looking for news about their local community or information about community events (35% in both cases).  A somewhat lower number (30%) go to the Internet in search of information about local government, with one-quarter of Internet users (24%) using the Net to find out about schools. They are useful.

Few people use the Internet to email public officials, with only 13% of Internet users saying they “often” or “sometimes” send an email to a public official in their community or state.  The low incidence of this kind of emailing may be due to ignorance of what is available on the Web about local government or some communities’ unwillingness to go online.  About half of all (52%) of all Internet users say that their town or local government has a Web site, and 3 out of 8 (37%) say they do not know whether their town has a Web site.  Just 12% say they are sure their town does not have a Web site. 

How helpful are Web sites?

The low incidence of emailing public officials may also say something about the quality of local government Web sites.  Only 20% of Internet users who have gone to their local government Web sites find the information there very useful, half the rate at which members of locally-oriented online groups find the Web sites of their groups very useful, and well below the 50% of members of cyber groups who find their groups’ Web sites very useful.

The Internet and public deliberation

The Internet is only occasionally used as a tool in public deliberation at a local level.  About 1 in 9 Internet users (11%) are aware of a debate in their community where the Internet played a major role in organizing citizens to communicate with public officials.  Seventy-two percent say use of the Internet was not part of any local deliberative process with 17% of Internet users saying they did not know.  The Internet’s most experienced users (i.e., those online for three years or more) are most likely to be aware of the Internet playing a role in a local debate, with 17% being aware of such an occurrence.  Only 6% of novice users (i.e., those who began using the Internet six months ago) have heard of the Internet playing a major role in local debate. 

However, those who have participated in online communities are more likely to be aware of local public debates on the Internet. For the 28% of Internet users who are active members of online communities, about a fifth (22%) say they are aware of the Internet playing a role in a local issue.  Members of Cyber Groups who belonged to the group prior to participating in it through the Internet are more likely than others to know of instances where the Internet helped shape public debate.  Similarly, 23% of the Internet users who belonged to local groups before they began using the Internet to communicate with them say they are aware of the Internet playing a role in a local debate.

Local public access to the Internet

A final element in considering the Internet’s role in local communities is public access.  Some see public Internet access as a way to allow those without a computer at home or work to enjoy the fruits of email and the Web.  Others see public Internet access as a way to encourage community chatter, as people hang out at an Internet café or public library to check their email.  When all Americans – Internet and non-Internet users alike – were asked if they knew of a place in their community where the Internet was publicly available, 51% said yes, 32% said no, and 17% said they did not know.  Internet users were much more likely to be aware of a public access site, with 63% saying their neighborhood had a public Internet access site compared with 38% of non-Internet users.  When asked to classify the type of place where the Internet was publicly available, 42% of all Americans said it was the public library, 2% said a school, 1% an Internet café, and 1% said a copy or computer store.

The most prominent differences in responses to the public access question have to do with race.  Some 53% of all white Americans and 51% of Hispanics said their neighborhood had a public Internet site, while just 44% of blacks said “yes” to this question. On the other side of the coin, 29% of whites said their neighborhood had no public Internet site, compared to 42% of blacks and 33% of Hispanics.  The differences are greater for Internet users.  Two-thirds (66%) of whites say there is a place nearby with publicly available Internet compared with 53% of blacks and 57% of Hispanics.  While a quarter (25%) of all Internet users say their neighborhood lacks a place where the Internet is available, 23% of whites say this, 38% of blacks, and 29% of Hispanics. 

Smaller differences are evident on public access for rural, urban, and suburban users.  Among Internet users, 65% of rural residents say they know of a place in their community where the Internet is publicly available compared with 64% of suburban residents and 59% of urban dwellers.  This relatively uniform finding is somewhat surprising because one might expect rural users, because of greater distance between enclaves of population, would either not know of publicly available Internet sites or simply not have them.  All of this is in the context of higher Internet penetration rates in urban and suburban areas, with 57% of suburban residents and 55% of urban residents having Internet access compared with 44% of rural residents.

In summary, the Internet plays a fairly prominent role at the local level as an information utility and a comparatively small role in organizing public debate.  However, for a subset of Internet users—the most wired and those who are most involved in using the Internet to be part of an online community—use of the Internet helps in community participation.  A significant number of these users can think of a situation in which the Internet helped shape public participation.  As for public access, the Internet does not have the standing of the pay phone when it comes to a publicly available communications tool.  About half of all Americans can say that they know of a public Internet site in their neighborhood, with white Americans (Internet users especially) having greater awareness of these sites than blacks and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics.