Many use the Internet to connect with online communities that embrace their hobbies, their professions, their passions, and their beliefs
28 million go online with church groups, sports leagues, and social organizations in their home towns

WASHINGTON-The Internet allows tens of millions of Americans to participate in a thriving social world where they enjoy serious and satisfying contact with online communities.

Some 84% of Internet users have contacted an online group. That means that more Americans have used the Internet to contact a group than have gotten news online, or searched for health information, or bought a product.

Many of these online groups are far flung and allow Internet users to connect easily with others around the world who share their passions, beliefs, hobbies, and lifestyles. At the same time, 26% of online Americans use the Internet to intensify their connection to their local community by planning church meetings, organizing neighborhood gatherings, arranging local sports league operations, coordinating charity activities, and petitioning local politicians.

These findings represent some hopeful news that the Internet can be a tool for vigorous social engagement, rather than a technology that spurs isolation and alienation among users.

  • 50% of those who participate in online groups say the Internet has helped them get to know people they would not otherwise have met.
  • More than a third (37%) of those who participate in online groups say the Internet has helped them meet others from different generations than their own.
  • More than a quarter (27%) of those who participate in online groups say the Internet has helped them connect with people from different racial, ethnic, or economic backgrounds than their own.

    These results come in a survey of Internet users by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a research organization that examines the social impact of the Internet. They are contained in a report entitled, “Online Communities: Networks that nurture long-distance relationships and local ties.”

    “For vast numbers of Americans, use of the Internet simultaneously expands their social worlds and connects them more deeply to the place where they live,” says Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “Online groups are comfortable places for people to congregate and get to know organizations and people they might never have encountered.”

    Many online Americans are using the Internet to connect to traditional groups that exist in the offline world such as professional and trade associations, hobby enthusiast organizations, religious groups, ethnic and racial fraternal organizations, and political groups. A surprisingly large number of those contacting online groups (56%) say they became active in a group — even traditional, offline organizations — after they began communicating with it over the Internet.

    At the same time, millions of online Americans now use the Internet to connect to groups to which they belonged before they began using the Internet – and they report that their use of the Internet has helped them become more involved with those groups.

    One other encouraging sign is that use of the Internet is drawing new kinds of people to groups. In particular, young adults and minorities are using the Internet to participate in all kinds of online clubs and organizations and this is leading to new forms of civic involvement.

    “The network of networks has become a collection of communities,” said John Horrigan, senior researcher at the Pew Internet Project and principal author of the report. “Many actively engage in cyber groups through email and bulletin boards that are lively forums for sharing ideas, hashing out issues, and making new friends.”

    The Pew Internet Project study identifies 9 different types of Internet users who are attracted to online groups. Many belong to several types: On average, a Cyber Groupie (or someone who has checked out an online group) has visited 4 different online groups at one time or another. The different types are:

  • The Getting Ahead group – 51% of Internet users who have checked out trade and professional associations or labor unions. They are more likely to be college-educated men.
  • The Getting By group – 43% of Internet users who use Internet groups to mange day-to-day responsibilities, such as parenting or medical conditions. Women, especially those in the 35-44 age bracket, gravitate to this group.
  • Belief groups – 56% of Internet users who go to religious online groups or those relating to spiritual beliefs. Those in Belief groups value making personal connections more than the average Cyber Groupie.
  • Lifestylers – 28% of Internet users who go to online groups to contact people with similar lifestyles. Lifestylers tend to be men under age 34 and are among the very active emailers of other online community members.
  • Ethnic and racial groups – 15% of Internet users who have contacted an ethnic group online. This is the most racially diverse set of Cyber Groupies; this group is also younger and more urban than other categories of online communitarians.
  • Civic Engagement group – 45% of Internet users who have contacted an online group such as a neighborhood association or local charitable group. This group is older than average, and active in emailing online groups close to home.
  • Political Groupies – 22% of Internet users who have contacted a political group online. This group is mostly educated white males, and they are among most active emailers of others in online groups, and report that online groups have deepened their involvement in groups to which they already belong.
  • Entertainment groupies – 60% of Internet users who go to online groups about TV shows or fan sites of particular performers. This Cyber Groupies are younger than average, and have been online longer than others who go to online groups.
  • Sports Junkies – 42% of Internet users go to online groups about their favorite sports teams or local teams in which they participate. These users fit a perhaps predictable profile: they tend to be suburban men between the ages of 35 and 44.

    Here are some other key findings from the survey:

  • Men tend to be drawn to online groups involving professional activities, politics, and sports.
  • Women tend to be drawn to online medical support groups, local community associations that are online, and cyber groups relating to entertainment.
  • Lurking is not prevalent among Cyber Groupies; fully 60% email their group, 43% several times a week.
  • 35% of all Internet users go online for news about their local community or community events.
  • 30% of all Internet users go online to get information about their local government.
  • 11% of Internet users know of a local issue in which the Internet played a role in organizing citizens to communicate with public officials.
  • 51% percent of all Americans know of a place in their community where the Internet is publicly available. Overwhelmingly, these places are public libraries. African-Americans are the most likely to say that their community lacks public access to the Internet; 42% of African-Americans say their community does not have publicly available Internet terminals somewhere, compared with 29% of whites and 33% of Hispanics.

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a nonpartisan, independent research organization funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to study the impact of the Internet on families, communities, health care, education, civic and political life, and the work place.