The Internet doesnt make us misanthropic hermits after all, according to a new study.
A report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project to be released today finds that the Internet is very effective at knitting communities together, countering research that has suggested the Net causes people to become isolated.
The Pew survey found that 84 percent of Internet users -- or 90 million Americans -- have at some point used the Net to contact or get information from a group.
"The online world is a vibrant social universe where many Internet users enjoy serious and satisfying contact with online communities," writes John Horrigan, a Pew senior researcher and lead author of the report.
Of the 90 million "cybergroupies," as the study refers to those who have participated in online communities, 79 percent stay in regular contact with at least one group. Other significant findings of the study: 50 percent of cybergroupies said online communities helped them meet people they otherwise would not have met, and 40 percent said the Net helped them become more involved with groups they are already members of.
Half of the cybergroupies in the Pew study said they find their groups Web site "very useful," and 43 percent said they send e-mail to a group several times a week. In addition, 26 percent of all Internet users said they have become involved with or received information from local groups online.
The most popular online communities, the Pew study found, are trade or professional groups, which 50 percent of cybergroupies said they belong to; hobbyist groups, also with 50 percent; sports fan groups, 31 percent; and entertainment fan clubs and local associations, with 29 percent each.
The Pew study runs counter to research that showed the Nets antisocial effects. In February 2000, a study published by Stanford Universitys Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society said that one-fourth of users who spent five hours or more online per week felt their Internet use had reduced time spent with family and friends. However, some observers criticized the Stanford reports methodology, which only surveyed people online.
The Pew study, titled "Online Communities: Networks That Nurture Long-Distance Relationships and Local Ties," was based on a survey conducted in January and February of 2001 via telephone of 3,002 adults, 1,697 of which were Internet users. The study has a margin of error of 3 percent.