Line between online and offline life continues to blur

Anyone who has spent much time on social networks knows they can actually enhance offline relationships or lead to new ones, rather than replacing activity in the “real world.” Now research has also begun to show that this is the case, including a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life project — which found that not only are users of social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn (s lnkd) and Twitter more socially engaged online and offline, but there are few signs of any “echo chamber” effects. As sociologists like Zeynep Tufekci have argued, the dividing line between our offline lives and our online lives continues to dissolve, as online activities become intertwined with almost everything we do.

The Pew research — which contacted 2,255 people via a telephone survey in October and November of last year — found that close to half of all those surveyed (47 percent of adults and 59 percent of regular Internet users) use at least one social network. That is almost twice the number who said they used such services in 2008, Pew said in a news release (the full PDF version of the report is available here).

Not surprisingly, Facebook is the number one social network used, with over 92 percent of users saying they belong, while 29 percent use MySpace (s nws), 18 percent use LinkedIn and 13 percent primarily use Twitter. The amount of daily usage is quite different across the various platforms, however: more than half of all Facebook users say they use the site daily, and 33 percent of Twitter users say the same — but only 7 percent of MySpace users do this, and only 6 percent do so with LinkedIn (which is why the site is trying a number of things to become more “sticky” with users).

Since Facebook was the most used, the Pew research focused mostly on social activity there in its conclusions. Among other things, the center found that:

  • Facebook users have more close ties: the Pew report found that someone who uses the social networking site multiple times a day has an average of 9 percent more close ties in their overall social network than other Internet users.
  • Facebook users are more politically engaged: compared with other Internet users, the report found that regular Facebook users were two-and-a-half times more likely to attend a political rally or meeting, 57 percent more likely to persuade someone else to vote, and 43 percent more likely to vote themselves.
  • Facebook users get more social support: Pew’s research showed that those who use Facebook multiple times a day get more emotional support and companionship from their social network than other Internet users.

In one of the most interesting aspects of the Pew research, those who visit Facebook multiple times a day are more likely to agree with the statement that “most people can be trusted.” They were 43 percent more likely than other Internet users to believe this, and three times as likely as non-Internet users. Is this a function of the age range of the typical Facebook user? That’s not clear, but it’s an interesting result nevertheless. Could social activity online be making us more open and trusting of others? Or do non-trusting or cynical types just not join Facebook?

The results of the report as far as users being more socially active offline as well as online corroborates an earlier study by Pew that came out in January, which showed that those who are regular users of social networks are much more likely to belong to political or social groups offline as well. And among those who belong to social groups in the “real world,” those who routinely use social networks online were also found to be more active and involved members of those groups. The latest report also found something similar.

The other aspect of online life that Pew looked at was the concern over the “echo chamber effect” some fear could occur as members of social networks stick to views they are already comfortable with — an aspect of what author Eli Pariser has called the “filter bubble” in a recent book of the same name. But Pew said there is:

[N]o evidence that SNS [social networking service] users, including those who use Facebook, are any more likely than others to cocoon themselves in social networks of like-minded and similar people, as some have feared.

Hopefully, reports like this latest one from Pew will start to put to rest the fears that online activity somehow removes people from the “real world” or takes the place of “normal” social activity. Social networks have become so engrained in most of our lives by this point that they have become a crucial part of what we do, both online and offline — as we’ve seen in the use of Facebook and Twitter during the “Arab Spring” revolutions in the Middle East. That is the power of the network and what Om has called the “alive web.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user retinafunk