Penn professor discusses social networking

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October 23, 2009

4:24 AM

Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a presentation entitled “New Technologies and the Structure of Community in Private, Public, and Parochial Spaces” to College of William and Mary students in Blow Hall Oct. 20.

He began by explaining that the main purpose of his research was to look at how social networks in three realms of social interaction contribute to the public sphere through the private, parochial and public realms.

Hampton said that in the social realm he looked at the “social life of wireless urban space.” He observed seven different public parks, plazas and markets in major cities, most of which revolved around the usage of mobile phones.

More recently, however, there has been an increase in internet usage by means of wireless internet.

He found that the mean age of public wireless internet users was 31.4 years, that males outnumbered females three to one, that 68 percent of users were unmarried and that New York had the most users compared to other cities in the United States and Canada.

“For some reason, Canadians tend to do odd things — like talk to each other,” Hampton said.

Hampton found through surveys that 43 percent of wireless internet users were reading online news, 29 percent were using a social networking website and 8 percent were actively blogging.

Hampton said those using the internet in public areas were less approachable and less attentive than those using public space for non-internet activities.

“Public spaces are no longer a public realm,” he said.

According to Hampton, even though there is less social interaction with strangers, people are continuing their relationships with existing kin through online activities.

Hampton’s idea of the “parochial realm” consists of places like neighborhoods and workplaces, which are more diverse than homes, but more familiar than the public.

He found that people who have access to an internet connection tend to recognize three times as many neighbors as those without a connection.

However, he also noted that in his “eNeighborhood” study, it made a greater difference for people who already had strong ties with neighbors.

“Internet may expand the gap between social capital ‘have’ and ‘have nots,’” Hampton said.

For the private realm, which is comprised of strong ties, and a small subset of people’s full social network,
Hampton looked at studies explaining the “rise of social isolation, decline in network size and loss of diversity in core discussion networks.”

His study, which was completed last year and will be released in a few weeks, did not actually find a negative relationship between internet, mobile phone use and core social networks.

America especially had a low number of close-network members when comparied to other countries.

“This is a uniquely American issue,” he said.

Hampton concluded by summarizing the trend of decreased in exposure to diverse ideas and opinions in the public sphere and the increase in the size and diversity of ties in parochial and private realms.

Hampton said he plans to looks more into social interaction in public spaces in the future to see if people are interacting less because of new technologies.

“Students at the University of Pennsylvania are well-known to put a phone to their ear, implying that they don’t want any type of social interaction, when they’re not actually talking to anyone,” Hampton said.

Kevin Carey ’11 said the speech helped him understand previously unknown positive impacts of technology.

“It was very provocative,” Carey said. “I’ve always felt cell phones and laptops would harm the public space in terms of social interaction, but this showed me some of the benefits technology can bring to social space.”

Nihan Kaya ’10 said the speech made her realize the different ways in which technology affects us.

“We’re all aware of it, but because it’s always around us, we sometimes get lost,” Kaya said.

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