by: Nancy Baym
In class this week I showed Stephanie Tuszynski’s recent documentary “IRL In Real Life” about an officially-sanctioned online community that formed around Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The film raises a number of issues about how the cast and production team (not least Joss Whedon) interacted with the fans.
For instance, there is tremendous excitement when they show up at the first party fans have organized, which turns to irritation as the parties are overrun by those who want a glimpse of the celebrities but are not participants in the community, and then a sense of betrayal when promises to give the fan site a new home after the show switched networks are not kept.
But what got my students going was a concern that engagement in this group would increase the fans’ social isolation. Those she interviewed talk about having no one around who’s into the show, about not relating to people at work and therefore socializing on the board instead of around the coffee urn, and about many or even most of their “real” friends now being people they met through the board. Justifiably, I think, my students asked if their use of the board was preventing them from going out and meeting people they could relate to in their local communities.
Conveniently enough, the topic scheduled for the next day dealt with just this issue: Does use of the internet impact people’s engagement with offline community. There have been several studies that deal with this, including ongoing work by the Pew Project on the Internet and American Life, Jeff Cole’s World Internet Project, the Carnegie-Mellon Homenet Project, Katz Aspden and Rice’s Syntopia Project, Sandra Ball-Rokeach’s Metamorphosis Project, John Robinson’s time use studies, and others.
The evidence is not 100% clear, but there’s a consistent finding that time spent online does not lessen time engaging others face-to-face in one’s local community. It may lessen the time spent with members of the household, by very small amounts, although that may be an artifact of people who use the internet a lot being home less often to begin with. All in all, in comparison to people who use the internet very little or not at all, people who use the internet seem to be more likely to socialize with friends and family members outside the household in person each week, to have more conversations and phone calls with more people, to attend more cultural events, to belong to more religious organizations, to be at least as and sometimes more involved in clubs and civic organizations, and to be more engaged with politics.
The evidence to support the fear that people who are into the internet, including spending time in online fan activities, are somehow dissociating themselves from more meaningful offline life is just not there. The differences aren’t big, but if anything, people who spend more time online are less socially isolated and more socially engaged with the people around them than those who spend little or no time online.