Pew’s latest study on the Internet got a lot of press last week, reassuring Facebook junkies (like me) that using the social network does not – as some have warned – turn us into anti-social hermits whose online “friends” are mere substitutes for real relationships. Instead, according to Pew, Facebook users not only have more close friendships than the average American, they also are more trusting of others, get more social and emotional support, and are more politically active.
Less reported in the media, however, were the study’s findings on possible filter bubble effects of Facebook. Are online social network sites (SNS) narrowing our information streams, leaving us less exposed to a diversity of views, as Eli warns?
The good news is that SNS’s are not, according to Pew, making us more close-minded. When asked whether they agreed with statements like “I believe that there are two sides to every question and I try to look at them both,” Internet and social network users were just as willing to be open-minded as other Americans. The one exception were Myspace users, who were more open-minded than any one else (theories on why are welcome in the comments section).
The possible bad news is that Facebookers’ networks have dwindled in diversity over the past few years. In 2008 SNS members, like all Internet users, had more diverse circles of friends than non-Internet users. Using socioeconomic ties as a proxy for diversity, researchers assigned SNS and web users a diversity score of 45, with non-Internet users at 31. Two years later, however, SNS users had dropped to 39, not far above non-Internet users whose diversity ratings had risen to 38 (all Internet users were still up at 43). (See page vi for the numbers.)
Does that mean Facebook is making our social circles more homogeneous? It would be rash to leap to that conclusion. For one thing, the shift in diversity among Facebook users’ networks could be explained by a change in demographics over the past two years. (The study teased out the influence of age, education, etc. for the 2010 numbers (see page x), but not for 2008 so it’s impossible to tell.) The results should, however, make us puzzle – if not be outright concerned. At best we can say that, unlike using the Internet as a whole, spending time on Facebook does not diversify our lives. The question still remains if, at worst, it is making them more narrow.