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June 16 2011


Are Americans becoming more isolated from each other? Maybe, Pew says, but don’t blame Facebook

The accusations are familiar: The Internet is making us sad. The Internet is making us lazy. The Internet is making us lonely.

Pew has taken all of those ideas head-on with a new study, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives” — the first national, representative survey of American adults on their use of social networking sites. Pew interviewed 2,255 of those American adults, 1,787 of them Internet users, between late October and late November of 2010; the survey group included 975 users of social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The survey builds on Pew’s 2009 report on technology and isolation, which found that, while there’s been a correlative decline in the size and diversity of people’s closest relationships since the advent of digital technology, the decline hasn’t (whew!) been caused by the Internet.

And today’s findings corroborate that. Americans’ use of social networks has nearly doubled since 2008, Pew notes, and “there is little validity to concerns that people who use SNS experience smaller social networks, less closeness, or are exposed to less diversity,” its report concludes. Furthermore: “The likelihood of an American experiencing a deficit in social support, having less exposure to diverse others, not being able to consider opposing points of view, being untrusting, or otherwise being disengaged from their community and American society generally is unlikely to be a result of how they use technology, especially in comparison to common predictors.”

While it’s still legitimate, I think, to wonder how the structures of social networks play out on the broader cultural level, it’s increasingly clear that our early dystopian fears of an Internet of Isolation are largely unfounded. We may be bowling alone, yes — but we’re also doing a lot of other things together, as a community, online and off.


In its 2009 survey, to measure how much trust people have in their fellow citizens, Pew asked its participants: :Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” And only 32 percent, less than a third of Americans, fell on the “can be trusted” side of things. So the 2010 findings bring good news: This time around, a comparatively whopping 41 percent said that most of their fellow citizens can, indeed, be trusted.

And here’s where things get especially interesting: Internet users tend to be much more trusting than non-users. Of online Americans, 46 percent said that “most people can be trusted.” Only 27 percent of non-Internet users said the same.

There are demographic elements to those findings: Education and race can affect people’s levels of trust in each other independent of communications tools. Even controlling for that, however, Pew found, Internet users are more than twice as likely to think that most people can be trusted.

And, among those users, Facebook-ers seem to be the most trusting of all. “When we control for demographic factors and types of technology use,” the report notes, “we find that there is a significant relationship between the use of SNS and trust, but only for those who use Facebook – not other SNS platforms.” (Twitter, just to be clear, is included among those platforms. Which, hmm.)

The study also found, intriguingly, an apparent correlation between time investment and overall trust: Facebook users who use the service multiple times a day are 43 percent more likely than other Internet users — and about three times more likely than non-Internet users — to agree that “most people can be trusted.”

Viewpoint diversity

Another knock on the Internet is that it isolates its users from the broader world in the embrace of familiarity otherwise known as an echo chamber — and that, in the process, our online existences prevent us from the fullest expressions of IRL empathy. To tackle that idea, the report’s authors measured what psychologists call “perspective taking” — the ability to adopt the viewpoint of another person (or, in the context of politics, to consider “both sides of an issue”) — on a scale that ranged from 0 to 100. And what they found is that social network participation, while it doesn’t necessarily encourage empathy, doesn’t seem to harm it, either. “Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter users are no more or less able to consider alternative points,” the report puts it.

The one exception, interestingly, is MySpace. “Controlling for demographic characteristics and other types of technology use, MySpace users tend to have a greater ability to consider multiple sides of an issue in comparison to other people.” Whether that has something to do with the well-documented cultural differences between, say, MySpace and Facebook would make for more fascinating study fodder.

Meantime, though, there seems to be a similar social-networks-don’t-change-human-behavior phenomenon when it comes to the most obvious IRL demonstrations of social capital: belonging to local groups like sports leagues, religious organizations, and volunteer outfits. While 74 percent of Americans now belong to social networks offline — way up from the 65 percent who said the same back in 2008 — that bump has little to do with social networking online, Pew says. MySpace users actually have a negative correlation with voluntary group participation, even controlling for demographics, and “use of all other SNS platforms does not predict belonging to a voluntary group.”

Civic engagement

And what about more explicit political activity? Demographic factors — age, gender, education — have always been, and are still, the most predictive factors of political engagement. But even accounting for that, Pew found that Internet users, and Facebook users in particular, are more likely to be politically involved than their non-Internet-using-but-otherwise-similar counterparts.

“Controlling for demographic characteristics, Internet users are nearly two and a half times more likely to have attended a political rally (2.39x), 78 percent more likely to have attempted to influence someone’s vote, and 53 percent more likely to have reported voting or intending to vote than non-Internet users,” the survey found. And a Facebook user who visits the site multiple times per day is two and a half times more likely than the standard Internet user to have attended a political rally or meeting. That user is also 57 percent more likely to have tried to convince someone to vote for a specific candidate, and 43 percent more likely to have voted to expressed an intention to vote.

Overall, then, compared with non-Internet users, Facebookers are 5.89 times more likely to have attended a political meeting, 2.79 times more likely to talk to another person about voting, and 2.19 times more likely to report having actually voted.

It’s noteworthy that the engagement metrics here aren’t just about passive participation — clicking a “Like” button on Barack Obama’s Facebook page or otherwise engaging in virtually mindless acts of “hacktivism.” What Pew is measuring are intentional, physical, IRL actions — rallying, voting, arguing — that stew together, physically and palpably, to form a democracy. And Facebook, more than any other major social network, seems to be encouraging those actions. It’s worth wondering why, exactly, that is. And it’s worth considering what news organizations, which share both an economic and civic interest in encouraging public participation, can learn from it.

August 02 2010


Can Social Micro-Earnings Help Micropayments Work for News?

Would readers pay as little as a penny, or even less, for news? They would, if paying was combined with social sharing, micro-earning, virtual currency and a centralized banking system, according to doctoral students Geoffrey Graybeal and Jameson Hayes of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

Graybeal and Hayes propose a "Modified News MicroPayment Model" as a way to implement micropayments for news. In this model, readers are not pushed to pay for content, but are instead given choices and incentives to nudge them to pay. The model consists of four key elements: Micro-earnings, socialization/sharing, local focus and a centralized banking system. The model is described in a detail in a paper [PDF] that the pair presented at the Annual International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, Texas, in April.

The pair determines the two-way interaction of the social web as a principle in the model.

"When you use people's social networks to share content, and get other people to pay for it, it should be a partnership between the media organization and the reader, not a one-way proposition," Hayes said in a phone interview. "People need to get paid back, and the social web allows that."

Micro-earn by Sharing

In the model, micro-earnings are combined with social sharing. For example, when a reader shares news articles with friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter, and a friend ends up purchasing the article, the reader earns points. The reader can exchange these points to pay for articles at a news outlet. Thus, the reader can transform their social capital into something with monetary value.


Micro-earning has already been experimented with on a small scale in journalism. For example, sharing platform YupGrade enables readers to earn points, credits or badges by sharing news stories related to a certain topic. Sharing can be combined with donating, as was the case when YupGrade partnered with the Hunger in America campaign for the SXSW Interactive conference. For every story about hunger, malnutrition, or obesity in the U.S. shared on YupGrade, a can of food was donated to the campaign.

Another example of micro-earning is crowdfunding platform Spot.Us, where community members can earn credits by filling out surveys or other activities. They can then use these credits to donate to pitches on Spot.Us. Thus, readers' time is given a monetary value that can be converted on the site.

According to Graybeal and Hayes, when a news outlet implements a micropayment system, they should also simultaneously implement a micro-earning system.

"Micro-earning would have taken away some of the shock when Time magazine recently implemented a pay wall," Hayes said.

Virtual News Currencies: Times Tender, WSJ Bucks

Evidence suggests consumers are more likely to spend more money when they use virtual currencies and credits, Hayes and Graybeal state in their paper. As a result, the pair believes media outlets should establish their own currency. The Wall Street Journal could offer "WSJ Bucks," the New York Times could have the "Times Tender," etc.

Earning 100 WSJ Bucks for sharing an article on Facebook is more appealing to the reader than paying one-tenth of a cent for an article, they argue. Readers could then cash out the micro-credits they have earned via a centralized banking system. The news outlets could also sell points to the readers.

How the Banking System Works

Hayes and Graybeal see a centralized banking system as being crucial when building a seamless user experience for paying for news. It is also needed to address the transaction costs that are associated with micropayments. The banking systems gives especially local news outlets more control over the pricing of the news, the pair says.

"If a big story breaks in Clayton, Georgia, and the local newspaper, the Clayton Tribune, is the only one who has the story on it, the newspaper should be able to leverage that for their business, and not have the price forced on them by the national news organizations," Hayes said. "The central banking systems allows you to maintain the local focus, have different prices on different products and different places, all that streamlined into one banking system."

Here is how the banking system could work, according to Hayes' and Graybeal's proposal. Let's say the New York Times' currency is called Times Tender, and the user pays $100 for 100 Tenders. With one Tender, the reader can get an access to 10 Times articles. The Times has partnered with a micropayment billing platform that enables the reader to purchase articles with one click.

The users' Times Tender profile is linked to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. When they share a news article on social media and somebody from their network purchases the article, the billing system recognizes this and gives the reader credit.

"The key is to have a seamless user experience," Hayes said. "It has to be easy to use so that it is appealing to the readers."

Micropayments as Part of a Revenue Ecosystem

Graybeal and Hayes emphasize the importance of local and hyper-local focus in journalism, and see their micropayment model that could work for local news.

"Local news has always been a bread and butter for newspapers, but often times when talking about business models we are talking only about big players such as the New York Times," Graybeal said. "But a large amount of newspapers don't fall into this category, and there is a big opportunity for journalism in the neighborhoods that nobody is really covering."

Graybeal and Hayes see micro-earning as one revenue model in the ecosystem of revenue streams that consists of advertising, subscriptions and micropayments.

"This is not the solution, but can be one of the solutions", Hayes said.

He said readers have to be given different options for how to pay for news, such as through subscriptions or one article at a time via micropayments.

"In a paid content environment, outlets will leave money on the table and do a disservice to readers if multiple options for payment are not offered," Graybeal said.

Tanja Aitamurto is a journalist and a Ph.D. student studying collective intelligence in journalism. She has studied innovation journalism at Stanford, and has degrees in journalism, social sciences, and linguistics. Tanja advises media companies and non-profit organizations about business models, reader engagement and community building. As a journalist, she specializes in business and technology. She contributes mainly to the Huffington Post and to the Helsingin Sanomat, the leading daily newspaper in Finland, as well as to the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

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