Pew: Internet Spurs Development of Voluntary Organizations

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Thought America's Web obsession was building a nation of basement-dwelling blog fiends? Think again: a new study indicates that the Internet is facilitating the development of more voluntary organizations while strengthening the bonds in old ones.

A new study released by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, entitled "The Social Side of the Internet," highlights the ongoing role that the Internet is playing in social organization. Pew found that while 75% of all American adults are active in some kind of voluntary group or organization, Internet users are more likely than others to be active and engaged: 80% of Internet users participate in groups, compared with 56% of non-Internet users. Social media users are even more likely to be active: 82% of social network users and 85% of Twitter users are group participants.

The Pew Internet data essentially reinforces Clay Shirky's thesis in Here Comes Everybody (2008) on organizing in the digital age: As new innovations in media and information technology make communication infinitely more efficient, the costs of organizing plummet, creating more opportunities for collective action in the digital realm. Communities like Reddit and 4chan, for example, do have a "home base" on a particular website, yet have no need to deploy firm-like systems of complex rules to reduce the costs of engaging in communal activity; they simply act, with minimal direction.

While 75% of all American adults are active in some kind of voluntary group or organization, internet users are more likely than others to be active and engaged.

But Pew Internet's study also suggests another interesting factor: Active Internet users are more likely to reinforce pre-existing social or civic organizations than seek out new contacts for new organizations. According to Pew, American adults active in groups were asked about three potential reasons for being active in social or civic groups. Some 59% of adults cited "accomplishing things as part of a group that they could not accomplish on their own" as their primary incentive. An almost equal number (57%) say that keeping up with news and information about subjects that matter to them is a major reason. While there are obvious demographic differences -- low income adults and African-Americans are slightly more likely than others to cite meeting new people who share their interests as a major reason to participate in social and civic groups -- the majority of American adults cited participating in substantive, identity-based activities as the major incentive to become involved in a social or civic organization.

I'm reminded of the cautionary tale of technology espoused in the pages of Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000), the much debated sociological expose on American community which introduced the phrase "social capital" into the American intellectual lexicon. Putnam -- who discussed his work with The Atlantic in a 2000 interview --  pointed to the gradual "individualizing" of our leisure time through television and other technological innovations as an eroding force in American social life; every man had the potential to end up forever a basement-dweller, pwning their opponents in StarCraft in a semi-coherent miasma of white noise without engaging in any meaningful civic actvitiy.

While Putnam's thesis has been heavily discussed in the past decade, the Pew Internet study serves as a gentle, if cursory, rejoinder. Technology has served to enhance, rather than erode, the communal organs so crucial to American civil society:

    • 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 that. 
    • 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.

Technology may not be the corrosive force that Putnam imagined in American life. Instead, it may provide new lifeblood for civic organizations by making participation cheap and easy, if in a different form. Americans may not want to bowl alone: they just prefer to do it online, from the comfort of their homes.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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