New paper shows social connectivity is not declining (not because of Internet, anyway)

Hua (Helen) Wang, & Barry Wellman (2009). Social Connectivity in America. Changes in Adult Friendship Network Size from 2002 to 2007 American Behavioral Scientist

The story so far, can be summarized as follows: since the beginning of the Web, a significant amount of researches has being focusing on the inverse correlation between online connectivity and face-to-face interactions. In social sciences, this is known as “the Internet Paradox”, after the title of an influential article published by Robert Kraut (1998). In a nutshell,  Internet can be regarded as a “social technology that reduces social involvement”. Consequently user’s well-being and social ties could be negatively affected by computer-mediated communication.

This argument was so compelling – and so remenescent of the common sense claim that “since computers are around, people don’t talk anymore” – that the Internet paradox long outlived its scientific credibility. Some years later, Kraut himself made amends for it in a follow-up article, admitting that his argument had to be “rivisited”.  He went back to observe the very same families of the previous study and found the negative effect of online communication on social life had disappeared. Not only, but he even detected positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being. A hell of a retraction, if you ask me.

Now, as epistemologists know, bad theories are difficult to flush out. Especially when you have people who can exploit them to serve their political agenda – or to spin themselves a cheap media story, as recently a certain British fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine did.

Luckily for us, Canadian sociologist Barry Wellman has been fighting against this research trend since its first apperence. And luckily for us, these days he seems to be prevailing. (more…)