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August 11, 2000

Internet Strengthens Social Relations and Community Involvement: The "Netville" Wired Neighborhood Study

WASHINGTON , DC - August 11, 2000 - Results of a new three year study are the first to reveal the social consequences of living in a highly-wired, broadband neighborhood. This research addresses recent interest in the effects of Internet use on relationships with friends, relatives and neighbors.

The key finding is that living in a wired neighborhood with access to a high-speed local network encourages greater community involvement, expands and strengthens local relationships with neighbors and family, and helps maintain ties with friends and relatives living farther away.

These findings were presented by Prof. Keith Hampton and Prof. Barry Wellman at a media briefing on Saturday, August 12th on "Cyberspace and Everyday Life" at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association held in Washington DC from August 12-16. Keith Hampton also presented study findings on August 16th in a panel at the Annual Meeting.

Hampton and Wellman refer to this combination of global and local activity as "glocalization". They report that the Internet can encourage the resurgence of the civic involvement that has been argued to be in decline in the western world. Their work questions commentators who have argued that as people spend more time online they become isolated in the home and reduce social contact.

Unlike these other studies that looked only at life online, Hampton and Wellman looked at the totality of people's relationships? in-person, by telephone, as well as on the Internet. This gives a clearer picture of how the Internet fits into everyday life. Their study of the use of leading-edge broadband technology forecasts how growing use of high-speed Internet will affect people's lives in the near future. They compared "wired" residents on the high-speed network with other "non-wired" residents living in the same neighborhood.

Main findings are:

  • Those with access to the high-speed local network recognize, talk and visit with many more of their neighbors. Wired residents recognize 3 times as many neighbors and talk with twice as many, in comparison to non-wired residents. On average, wired residents recognize 25 and talk with 6 neighbors, as compared with non-wired residents who recognize 8 and talk with 3.
  • Access to the local computer network introduces new methods of communication and increases communication with friends, relatives and neighbors. Wired residents average 5 times as many local phone calls as non-wired residents and send an average of 4 emails to other local residents each month.
  • In addition to more neighboring, wired residents also have more contact and exchange more help with friends and relatives living outside of their neighborhood.
  • Greater access to neighbors through the local network means that wired residents are much more likely to know neighbors living elsewhere in the suburb, not just those living right near them. By contrast, non-wired residents only neighbor with those households closest to their own.
  • A neighborhood email list increases the amount of in-person socializing, as residents organize parties, barbecues and other local events online.
  • The same email list aids collective action and political involvement. Residents organize to protest housing concerns, collectively purchase goods, share information about burglaries, discuss a local teachers strike, and deal with their internet service provider.

"Netville" (a pseudonym) is located in suburban Toronto. It was one of the world's first residential developments to be equipped with a broadband local network. The neighborhood was built from the ground up with a 10Mbs high-speed computer network supplied and operated free of charge by a consortium of private and public companies. Netville's local network was a dual hybrid fiber coax technology with an ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) backbone that gave participants more than 300 times the speed of ordinary dial-up modems and more than 10 times the speed of contemporary ADSL or cable modems. For two years, the consortium provided Netville with services that included: high speed Internet access, a videophone, an online jukebox, online health services, local discussion forums, and entertainment and educational applications.

Hampton and Wellman surveyed residents moving into and living in Netville. In 1997, Hampton moved into Netville and conducted an ethnography for two years while participating in formal and informal community events. Netville residents varied from beginner to expert in their degree of computer and Internet experience. Of the 109 homes that comprised Netville, 64 were connected to the local network while 45 remained unconnected.

The research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and Communications and Information Technology Ontario.

Keith Hampton is Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is completing a doctoral dissertation at the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

Barry Wellman is Professor of Sociology and heads Netlab at the Centre for Urban and Community Studies and the Department of Sociology, University of Toronto. He is author of Networks in the Global Village, Westview Press, 1999.

For further information contact:

Keith Hampton (416) 513-9985, khampton@chass.utoronto.ca, www.mysocialnetwork.net

Barry Wellman (416) 978-3930, wellman@chass.utoronto.ca, www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman

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