In July and August 2008, the Pew Internet & American Life Project conducted a landline and cellular random digit dial survey of 2,512 Americans, aged 18 and older. The goal of this study was to replicate and expand on the methodology used in the 1985/2004 GSS to measure core discussion networks. We wanted to explore the relationship between internet and mobile phone use and the size and composition of core discussion networks. Specifically, the intent was to address issues raised by McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears in their 2006 work that suggest that internet or mobile phone users disengage from local relations, are involved in fewer voluntary associations, have less public and more private activities, and that users of these ICTs sacrifice strong ties to confidants for a large array of dispersed social ties.
Key questions are:
- Are Americans more socially isolated than in the past?
- Has the average size of core discussion networks changed?
- Are core discussion networks less diverse and more kin centered?
- Is the use of the internet and mobile phones associated with social isolation or smaller, less diverse core networks?
- What role do ICTs play in the maintenance of core networks?
- Does the internet or mobile phone withdraw people from neighborhood networks or participation in local institutions?
- Is internet or mobile phone use associated with “cocooning,” or a tendency to participate less in public and semipublic spaces?
- Does the use of ICTs contribute to a large, diverse personal network, or a small, insular network?
To address these questions, it was necessary to explore the possibility that the findings of the 2004 GSS are misleading.
The Pew Internet Personal Networks and Community Survey replicated key components of the 2004 GSS survey module on social networks. In addition, we attempted to minimize any technical problems that may have biased the 2004 GSS data, including problems with question order in the GSS survey instrument, and problems with the wording of the GSS survey (a complete discussion of these issues can be found in Appendix B: The GSS Controversy). A key component of the approach to overcome some of the limitations of the GSS data was the incorporation of a second question in the Pew survey that asked participants to list names of people in their core network.
As in the GSS, Pew Internet participants were asked to provide a list of people in response to the question:
“From time to time, most people discuss important matters with other people. Looking back over the last six months — who are the people with whom you discussed matters that are important to you?”
Unlike the GSS, the Pew Internet survey respondents were also asked:
“Looking back over the last six months, who are the people especially significant in your life?”
The use of a second “name generator” allows us to test the possibility that something has changed in the way Americans think about the idea of “discussion.” If they do not think that “discussion” takes place outside face-to-face meetings, this second question was inserted to make sure that they were providing us the names of the major social actors in their lives, not simply giving us the names of those with whom they had face-to-face deliberations. We were interested in trying to get respondents to think in a more fully-rounded way about the key ties in their social networks. If the meaning of “discuss” has changed in Americans’ minds since the 1985 GSS survey, then a shift is expected to be observed: internet and cell phone users would be more likely than non-users to have people in their lives who are “especially significant,” but who might not be listed as “discussion” partners when they are dealing with important matters.
Participants were asked additional questions about their neighborhood, participation in voluntary groups, use of public and semipublic spaces, network diversity, and use of the internet and mobile phones (a complete discussion of the survey methodology can be found in Appendix C: Methodology).