Thus far we have discussed online political activities for which there is a clear offline counterpart—for example, emailing a government official vs. sending a letter, or donating money online vs. doing so offline. A key finding of this analysis is that the ability to take action online is not necessarily bringing into political activity the kinds of people who do not usually take part. Indeed, to the extent that those with low levels of income or education are less likely to be online in the first place, such differences may even be exacerbated in the internet era.
However, the development of new forms of communication on the internet—like blogs and social networking sites—potentially expands the opportunities for civic engagement. These rapidly developing modes of internet-based expression and communication are very much a work in progress. At this point, we are in a position to pose questions, but not to draw definitive conclusions, about two significant matters. First, in contrast to the activities we have discussed so far, might these new forms of interaction engage new kinds of people, thus offering an avenue for civic involvement to the historically inactive? Second, will these new forms of communication, which often involve large numbers of people on the internet, have the effect of mobilizing people to undertake the kinds of activities, whether offline or on, that have the intent or effect of influencing government action -- either directly by affecting the making or implementation of public policy or indirectly by influencing the selection of people who make those policies? That is, will activities like writing about political issues on a blog or signing up as a friend of a candidate—like old-fashioned political discussions at dinner or at work—lead to political participation?
We looked at these forms of internet-based civic involvement in two ways. The first focuses on political engagement on social networking sites, and includes anyone who has done at least one of the following on these sites: get candidate or campaign information; start or join a political group or cause; or sign up as a friend of a candidate or campaign. The other measure captures the possibilities for political expression and includes those who have done one or more of the following: post comments on a website or blog about political or social issues; post pictures or video online about a political or social issue; write about political or social issues on their own blog; or post political content for others to read on a social networking site.