Will Social Networks Replace Search as Our Primary Source?

Probably not, but new research from Pew suggests that social networks will continue to shape how we consume information online

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The Pew Internet and American Life Project has a new round of surveys out measuring how people spend their time online. The Pew research found that, unsurprisingly, 92 percent of adults online use search engines to find information on the Web, with the same percentage of adults relying on email (62 percent of which check their inbox on a daily basis). Usage of email and search engines has grown proportionately with the size of the Internet population: The number of Americans using search engines grew from 52 percent in January 2002 to 72 percent in the most recent survey. For email, the number grew from 55 percent to 70 percent.

The interesting takeaway from this round of Pew data is the increasing use of social networks. In comparison to the proportional growth of email and search, the use of social networks has exploded since Facebook was founded.

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At first glance, the explosion of social media suggests the continued inflation of what Eli Pariser calls the "filter bubble," where algorithms interpret search queries based on the user's past history and, as a result, present information that confirms past search biases. While the problem isn't absent from Google and Yahoo, which rely on search history to surface bits of information, it's far more pronounced in networks like Facebook and Twitter, where users can selectively choose the pool of friends or sources that shape their daily information diet. Another problem is that what's trending (and therefore, to some extent, what's most visible) in the social space isn't necessarily what matters. As social networking catches up to search as the primary activity of Web-based information consumption, it follows that the quality of information consumed on a regular basis will decline, or that valuable information will be watered down with nonsensical memes and other Internet ephemera.

But social media skeptics need not wring their hands just yet. Regardless of the growth of social networks, classic search engines remain on top. Pew notes with surprise that search is most popular among the youngest adult Internet users (those aged 18-29), 96 percent of whom use search engines to find information online. This demographic, maturing in the age of Facebook, should be more predisposed towards relying on the social networks they grew up with. A possible explanation: the act of searching as examined by Pew isn't defined by the type of information being searched for. Social networks may be useful for skimming the chatter around news events or tracking down morsels of information shared by friends, but Google tends to be a little more reliable at pulling up (somewhat) relevant resources on a given topic.

What's the key to keeping the next generation of digital natives away from Facebook-focused consumption habits? Education offers an obvious solution. Parents and educators have not been happy with the idea of students relying on search engines and Wikipedia for their information intake, but with the rise of social networks, they may be more inclined to point their children towards Google than anywhere else on the Web.

Image: Reuters.

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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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