Stefan Bauernschuster, Oliver Falck and Ludger Woessmann – three economists from the Ifo Institute in Munich – are the authors of a working paper called Surfing Alone? The Internet and Social Capital: Evidence from an Unforeseeable Technological Mistake (here’s the PDF).
Referring to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, they say that:
On the one hand, the Internet obviously absorbs a lot of people’s time, which may come at the detriment of social engagement, and substitutes real-world interaction with solitary entertainment in the virtual world. On the other hand, the Internet may help people to connect in the virtual world and may in fact also facilitate social interaction in the real world by providing easy access to relevant information and reducing transaction costs to meet other people in such places as theaters, concerts, and bars
The question they were seeking to answer was this: Does the Internet undermine social capital or facilitate inter-personal and civic engagement in the real world?
I’ve linked to the report above, so have a read if you want to get into the detail. For now, here are a couple of choice paragraphs from the conclusion:
virtually all estimates in both models and for all social capital measures point in the positive direction. Further, the value-added models indicate significant positive effects on three measures of informal social interaction – visiting such places as theaters, concerts, and bars – and the more demanding IV models with county fixed effects suggest significant positive effects on attending theater, opera, and exhibitions as well as on meeting friends
Our findings are in clear contrast to the significant negative impact of TV consumption on social capital shown by Olken (2009). It seems that on average, because of the distinguishing feature of interactivity, the Internet is qualitatively different from the television in that its main function is not so much one of passive entertainment. At least in some areas of social engagement, the main function of the Internet seems rather one of active information and communication – which the Internet provides in an individualized form at any time – that is conducive to social interaction
The ‘unforseeable technological mistake’ bit was pretty interesting too but I’ll let you look that up yourself.
Via The Guardian (although no link to the report).