Keith Hampton, an expert in the study of social networks and new technologies, says that rather than destroying community life, being wired actually helps people connect. In fact, people who frequently use e-mail are more likely to be in frequent touch with others by telephone and in person, too.
“Sociologists have a long-standing debate about the impact of technology on community,” says Hampton, assistant professor of technology, urban and community sociology at MIT. “We question how developments like e-mail and mobile phones are going to affect the way we interact with one another.”
Seven years ago, Hampton set out to discover how online communication vehicles like e-mail are likely to impact our social contacts with family, close friends, and casual acquaintances. Are we going to meet less frequently in person? Are we going to become cut off from our communities? He also wanted to learn the extent to which global communication technologies can affect us at the local level — particularly within our own neighborhoods.
The big findings, he says, are that contact leads to contact. “If we have contact online, we’ll have more contact offline, and the opposite tends to be true as well,” Hampton says. “People generally don’t use just one medium or the other, and e-mail certainly doesn’t lead to a decrease in the size of our social circles. In fact, communicating on the Internet can increase our interactions by affording new types of relationships, for example, by helping us get to know our neighbors when we otherwise might never have.”
Through case studies in Toronto and, more recently, Boston, Hampton’s research team has focused on the way middle-class neighbors communicate with each other in urban and suburban neighborhoods — electronically and otherwise. For the Boston study, adult residents of three neighborhoods were provided with Internet services intended to facilitate access to their neighbors and to local information. No training or additional encouragement was offered by the research team. The most widely used service, says Hampton, was a neighborhood e-mail list.
At first, residents e-mailed each other strictly for recommendations.
“‘Anyone know of a good paver?’ ‘Can anyone recommend a plumber?’ Everyone wanted advice on home repair. It was a giant referral service. That went on for about a year,” Hampton says.
At the end of that year, though, someone decided to talk about local politics. And ever since then, they’ve been discussing — and acting on — local issues of all kinds. They’ve created petitions about government issues; they’ve organized to have bus routes changed in the neighborhood; and members of local government have been invited by residents to report to the community online. One of the study neighborhoods has even teamed up to form a non-profit neighborhood association.
Hampton’s research undeniably shows neighbors becoming more involved with neighbors as a result of online conversations happening locally. In a twist, it also turns out that more in-person and telephone contact is taking place in neighborhoods than before the project began (and more than in a control neighborhood). The difference has been e-mail.
“We’re finding some interesting things,” he says. “For example, 39 percent of participants in the suburban field site reported sending a personal e-mail to a neighbor they didn’t know before, simply as a result of having the e-mail address available to them; 41 percent met someone in person whom they did not know before e-mailing them; and 20 percent said they talked on the telephone with a neighbor they’d not spoken with before.
“Internet use glocalized social relationships,” he continues. “That is, it affords local activities using a global communication technology. E-mail is just an everyday part of everyday life. In our experimental settings, it is an opportunity for social interaction where none existed before.”
Having said that, Hampton warns this does not mean we should expect to fall in love with, or even become great pals with, our online acquaintances, even if they do live in our own neighborhoods. That’s because it’s uncommon for relationships — of any kind — to develop to that point.
He explains that within our personal social networks there are different levels of social ties. Strong social ties, of which the average person has just over a dozen, are our closest friends and family members. Of 4,258 strong social ties in the networks of 313 people interviewed by Hampton’s team, only four originated online.
On the other hand, we each have about 1,500 weak social ties. “Those are the people you don’t feel particularly close to but that you know or can tap for resources,” says Hampton. Most neighborhood social ties fall into this category.
There are, of course, occasional exceptions to the rule that social ties initiating online are usually of the weak tie variety. Keith Hampton, in fact, is one of those rare individuals who met his spouse online. And he’s delighted that social acceptance of online dating is on the rise, supported in part by research like his own.
“Finally,” he laughs, “my wife and I can drop our ‘big fat lie’ about having met at the library!”