January 18, 2011

The Social Side of the Internet

(Washington) — The internet is now deeply embedded in group and organizational life in America. A new national survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has found that 75% of all American adults are active in some kind of voluntary group or organization and internet users are more likely than others to be active: 80% of internet users participate in groups, compared with 56% of non-internet users. Moreover, social media users are even more likely to be active: 82% of social network users and 85% of Twitter users are group participants. 

In this survey, Pew Internet asked about 27 different kinds of groups and found great diversity in group membership and participation using traditional and new technologies. Asked to assess the overall impact of the internet on group activities:

  • 68% of all Americans (internet users and non-users alike) said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to communicate with members. Some 75% of internet users said that.
  • 62% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to draw attention to an issue. Some 68% of internet users said that.
  • 60% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to connect with other groups. Some 67% of internet users said th
  • 59% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to impact society *at large. Some 64% of internet users said that.
  • 59% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to organize activities. Some 65% of internet users said that.
  • 52% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to raise money. Some 55% of internet users said that.
  • 51% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to recruit new members. Some 55% of internet users said that.
  •  49% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to impact local communities. Some 52% of internet users said that.
  • 35% of all Americans said the internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to find people to take leadership roles. Some 35% of internet users said that.

    At a personal level, those who are active in groups say the internet has had varying influence over their connection to groups:

  • 53% of the online Americans who are active in groups say the internet has had a major impact on their ability to keep up with news and information about their groups.
  • 41% of these internet-using active group members say the internet has had a major impact on their ability to organize activities for their groups.
  • 35% of these internet-using active group members say the internet has had a major impact on their ability to invite friends to join their groups.
  • 33% of these internet-using active group members say the internet has had a major impact on their ability to find groups that match their interests.
  • 28% of these internet-using active group members say the internet has had a major impact on their ability to create their own groups.
  • 24% of these internet-using active group members say the internet has had a major impact on their ability to volunteer their time to groups.
  • 24% of these internet-using active group members say the internet has had a major impact on their ability to contribute money to groups.

    In the survey, respondents were asked about several kinds of outcomes and whether groups had achieved them in the previous 12 months. Those whose groups met their achievements reported that the internet was most helpful when it came to electing candidates and raising public awareness about an issue and was less helpful when it came to providing financial or emotional support to other people and solving local problems.

    “Use of the internet in general, and social media in particular, has become the lubricant for chatter and outreach for all kinds of groups ranging from spiritual communities to professional societies to ad hoc fan clubs,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet Project and one of the authors of a new report on the findings. “Even as internet tools have become ubiquitous in group activity, people have quite nuanced views of where technology is the biggest help and where its impact is pretty modest.”

    Some of the most intense users of technology for group activity are social media users, such as Facebook and Twitter users, and many groups now conduct a portion of their activity on those sites. In this survey, 62% of online adults use social networking sites and 12% use Twitter. Groups are moving aggressively into social media spaces to connect with members:

  • 48% of those who are active in groups say that those groups have a page on a social networking site like Facebook
  • 42% of those who are active in groups say those groups use text messaging
  • 30% of those who are active in groups say those groups have their own blog
  • 16% of those who are active in groups say the groups communicate with members through Twitter

    These social media users are also among the most active group members. They post about group activities on their Facebook pages and in Tweets; they are more likely than others to invite newbies into a group; more likely than others to be targeted for invitation to groups; more likely to use the internet to discover groups; more likely to say the internet enables them to participate in more groups and more likely to say they spend more time on group activities because of the internet. Social media users are significantly more likely than other group participants who go online for group activities, to say that the internet has a “major impact” on their ability to engage with their groups.

    “One of the striking things in these data is how purposeful people are as they become active with groups,” noted Kristen Purcell, the research director at Pew Internet and co-author of the report. “Many enjoy the social dimensions of involvement, but what they really want is to have impact. Most have felt proud of a group they belong to in the past year and just under half say they accomplished something they couldn’t have accomplished on their own.”

    On other internet impacts:

  • 46% of the internet users who are active in groups say the internet has help them be active in more groups than would otherwise be the case. 
  • 24% of those active in groups say they discovered at least some of their groups on the internet. However, three times that number of active group members (75%) did not discover any of the groups they belong to online.
  • 23% of internet users say the technology allows them to spend more time with their groups.

    “It is important to note that 25% of American adults are not active in any of the groups we addressed,” Aaron Smith, senior research specialist at Pew Internet and co-author of the report. “They often report they are time-stressed or have health or other issues that limit their ability to be involved. And about a fifth of them say that lack of access to the internet is a hindrance. Even in its absence, the internet seems to be a factor in the reality of how groups perform in the digital age.”