Personal Relationships Expand with Use of the Web

The Internet allows people to build social networks that support personal decisions. The findings in the report “The Strength of Internet Ties” published by Pew Internet & American Life Project refute previous assumptions that the Web limits social interaction.

Technologies such as the Internet; email; instant messenger and cell phones allow people to develop both “core ties” and “significant ties” at a more global level. Core ties are defined social contacts involving a very close relationship with a person. Significant ties are people somewhat closely connected to an individual. Respondents to the study reported an average 23 core ties and 27 significant ties. The median number of core ties is 15, and significant ties are 16. This means one-half of Americans have 15 or more core ties and 16 or more significant ones.

Contrary to belief the Internet enables social contact outside of social setting, people who email 80 percent or more of their core ties weekly are 25 percent more likely to have phone contact than non-emailing counterparts. In-person contact is about the same for those who email their core group and those who don’t.

Within the significant ties group, those who email their outer circle meet up with friends 50 percent more than non-emailers.

“Having the Internet at your fingertips helps you cultivate and maintain social relationships,” said John Horrigan, Ph.D., associate director at Pew Internet & American Life Project. “It becomes very important for maintaining ties and it does open up doors to getting advice when you need it.”

The trend of using technology to mobilize a social network represents a shift from household-to-household to person-to-person communication. Where previous communication consisted of phone calls to land lines and letters to a household, discussion is now conducted one-on-one on cell phones and in personal email accounts.

“The Internet does help spur traditional means of staying in touch,” said Horrigan.

In times of need, people mobilize their social network of core and significant ties to request help. “Media multiplexers,” or heavy users of technological communication channels, look to their social network when they need aid. Devices and technology considered to qualify heavy users include a PDA; cell phone; text messaging; and a wireless Internet connection.

When a person looks to his social network for help, the significant ties group can be more important than a core group. Knowing people across a range of different occupations remains the strongest predictor for getting help.

“Thirty-four percent of people said the Internet played a crucial role, they got advice and support from other people,” said Horrigan. “Thirty percent said they got information online to compare options.”

The finding suggests a mix of people in a social network and information on the Web aids in the decision-making process. Advice is most commonly asked of friends for decision points like getting additional career training (21 million turned to the Web); helping another person with a major illness or medical condition (17 million); choosing a school (17 million); buying a car (16 million); finding a new place to live (19 million); changing jobs (eight million); and personally dealing with a major illness or medical condition (seven million).

The report is based on the findings of two daily tracking surveys on American’s use of the Internet. The Project’s Social Ties survey was fielded from February 17, 2004, through March 17, 2004, and it involved interviews with 2,200 adults age 18 and older. The Project’s Major Moments survey was fielded from February 21, 2004, through March 21, 2004, and it involved interviews with 2,201 adults.

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